Iran’s health system could collapse amid a ‘catastrophic’ COVID surge, warns the country’s health minister.
Tehran, Iran – As Iranians are angry and frustrated with the country’s COVID-19 response, the government has announced a six-day country-wide shutdown to curb an alarming rise in deaths and infections.
The national anti-coronavirus task force, led by President Ebrahim Raisi, said on Saturday the nationwide shutdown will begin on Monday and last through Saturday. All offices, banks and non-essential businesses will be shut down.
An intra-city travel ban will also be instated from Sunday morning and last through Saturday night.
This is while earlier this month, Health Minister Saeed Namaki called for an urgent two-week lockdown enforced by the military to prevent a full collapse of the country’s strained health system.
Several earlier lockdowns were easily flouted amid lax enforcement by authorities.
It remains to be seen whether this new effort will have a meaningful effect on curbing the deadliest pandemic of the Middle East, now in its fifth wave defined by the Delta variant.
The health ministry said on Saturday 466 more Iranians died of COVID-19 and 29,700 more cases were discovered in the past 24 hours. The official death toll since February 2020 stands at more than 97,000, but officials have said the real number is likely much higher.
Tehran experienced its deadliest day on record on Friday, when 390 people died, including 216 from COVID-19. That figure broke a grim record in the 51-year history of Behesht-e Zahra, the capital’s cemetery, which is the largest in Iran.
The latest colour-coded map denoting the severity of outbreaks shows that zero cities are classified as “blue”, which indicates the lowest level of alarm. That is while a whopping 358 counties, encompassing almost all of the country’s 31 provinces, are classified as “red”.
The start of ceremonies for the holy Islamic month of Muharram from Tuesday across the country has stoked fears the death toll could climb even higher.
Numerous videos circulated earlier this week from several provinces showed people mourning in tight spaces, many without masks.
That prompted authorities to tweak Muharram health protocols, no longer allowing events to be held in indoor spaces, and also barring group ceremonies moving through streets.
Videos of full hospitals – with patients laying on the ground or in courtyards – and lines at pharmacies that at times face shortages of life-saving medicine, have become commonplace.
Slow vaccination and public anger
Even as Iran’s vaccine rollout has picked up pace in recent weeks, the country is still far from inoculating most of its 83-million population.
Only 14.7 million people have received at least one dose, while fewer than four million have been administered the full two doses.
Vaccination centres regularly see long queues that at times stretch for kilometres, with waiting times taking hours.
Vaccines have so far been imported from China, Russia, India, Cuba, Japan, and the global COVAX initiative, but officials have engaged in a blame game on why more doses have not been purchased, something that has only fuelled public anger.
President Raisi on Saturday said imports of 30 million doses have been finalised, without specifying the origins, and 60 million more doses are needed to control the pandemic.
More than one million doses of COVIran Barekat, the country’s first locally developed vaccine, have been administered, but large-scale production has hit several delays and officials have failed to explain why.
Some Iranians have taken to social media in recent days to try to attract attention to their plight, using the hashtag #SoSIran and tagging the World Health Organization.
Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei in January banned imports of vaccines manufactured by the United States and the United Kingdom, saying he does not trust them since they might want to test their products on others.
Khamenei on Wednesday said the pandemic is now the country’s number one priority, and “efforts must be redoubled so vaccines can be provided for the people through any means necessary”.
While unlikely to be a backtrack on his initial ban, the remark seems to be an effort to find a loophole. A health official said earlier this week that Pfizer and other American and British-made vaccines may be imported if they are produced in other countries.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander-in-chief Hossein Salami on Thursday officially praised outgoing health minister Namaki, and Alireza Zali, the head of Tehran’s anti-coronavirus task force.
“If it weren’t for some of our efforts, today we’d bear witness to daily deaths of over 1,300 people,” said the minister, who earlier this month claimed “the world is in awe” of how Iran has managed the pandemic.