Tehran, Iran – Iran’s health minister has called for two weeks of lockdowns enforced by armed forces and law enforcement to curb the alarmingly fast rise of COVID-19 cases across the country.
Saeed Namaki, who will likely be replaced after Ebrahim Raisi is inaugurated as the next president on Thursday, made the request in a letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that was also widely published by Iranian media on Sunday.
“The pressure is so high that I’m worried even this plan won’t be enough, unless we reduce the exponential load of illnesses through quick preventive measures and boosting adherence to health protocols,” he wrote.
The minister said the fifth wave of coronavirus infections, this time dominated by the virulent Delta variant, could become even more “catastrophic” and “irreversible” if nothing is done because even if the country does not run out of hospital beds, it will run out of workers.
“Even though they are vaccinated, my co-workers are all becoming sick due to long bouts of sleeplessness and stress,” he said, also warning that the country’s health system could collapse.
The heads of 65 medical universities and faculties across the country also called for a lockdown in a letter to outgoing President Hassan Rouhani last week.
More than 3.9 million cases of COVID-19 have been registered in Iran since February 2020 and more than 91,000 people have lost their lives in what has long been the deadliest pandemic of the Middle East.
The health ministry said 366 more Iranians died on Sunday while its numbers show virus deaths have surged by 38 percent compared with a week earlier.
The more than 32,500 newly-discovered cases that were announced on Sunday ranked among some of the highest in the world, and also showed a 32 percent increase compared with a week before.
Iran has introduced numerous temporary lockdowns and shutdowns across the country since the pandemic began, but most have been loosely enforced.
The government put capital Tehran and neighbouring Alborz under complete lockdown for six days in late July, but it was deemed mostly pointless as hardly any businesses closed down and travel restrictions were flouted amid low enforcement of protocols.
The situation has gotten significantly worse since then, but health officials have warned that the fifth wave of infections has yet to reach its peak.
Alireza Raisi, the spokesman of the national anti-coronavirus task force, said on Saturday that 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces are now in the throes of the Delta variant and hospital beds are quickly being filled.
Hundreds of cities across the country are now classified “red” in a colour-coded scale denoting the severity of outbreaks.
The task force’s spokesman Raisi also said adherence to health protocols requiring the use of face masks and observing physical distancing has dropped to below 40 percent across the country while it stood at above 70 percent less than two months ago.
Apart from other difficulties, implementing a forced two-week lockdown across the country is sure to prove challenging for Iranian authorities as people and businesses are under immense economic pressure due to United States sanctions and decades of mismanagement.
In an economy marked by inflation of more than 40 percent and high unemployment, many have been unable to close down shop.
But the last-ditch request for a strict lockdown also runs counter to the health minister’s previous rhetoric.
Namaki, who has frequently praised the supreme leader for his guidance during the pandemic, had last week repeated his claim that “the world is today in awe of how we have managed to both contain the illness with help from God, and produce medicine, equipment and vaccines”.
Vaccine rollout gains pace
Iran’s vaccine rollout has accelerated in the past two weeks as several more million doses have been imported after months of lag that officials said was due to US sanctions and missed deadlines by other countries.
So far, jabs have been imported from China, Russia, India, Cuba, and COVAX, the global vaccine effort.
But still, according to the health ministry, only about 10 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine in a country of more than 83 million.
People aged above 55 can currently sign up at the health ministry website to be inoculated.
Officials say more than half a million doses of COVIran Barekat, the country’s first locally developed vaccine, have also been administered across the country so far.
Local vaccines are expected to be rolled out in larger numbers during the next few months to fill the gaps left by lacklustre imports.
Iran has several other vaccine candidates in the works, including one jab developed by an organisation under the defence ministry, one under the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and one being developed by the private sector.
The Barekat vaccine, two doses of which have been administered to Khamenei, has been developed by a powerful organisation under the supreme leader.