AFP – Iran shut a key Shia tomb and appealed Sunday to its citizens to stay at home to halt a coronavirus outbreak it said has claimed over 700 lives and infected nearly 14,000 people.
The new overall tolls announced by the health ministry included another 113 deaths and 1,209 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection.
People “should cancel all travel and stay at home so that we may see the situation improving in the coming days,” ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.
In line with measures to stop the virus, the tomb of Imam Reza in Iran’s holy Shiite city of Mashhad was closed to pilgrims until further notice.
“Currently, the porches of the mausoleum and generally all the covered spaces of the holy shrine are closed,” a spokesman for the shrine told AFP.
All collective prayers had also been cancelled “except in open spaces and courtyards” of the shrine, he added.
Jahanpour said the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection across Iran was now 13,938.
Tehran province had the highest number of new infections with 251 fresh cases.
But Khorasan Razavi province, home to the holy city of Mashhad, followed with 143 new cases to a total of 568.
“Cases there will probably increase,” the official said, calling on everyone to refrain from travelling to the northeastern province.
Mashhad’s Imam Reza shrine receives many devout Iranians every year, especially around the country’s New Year holidays, which start on March 20.
The province has already closed hotels and other tourist accommodation in a bid to dissuade people from travelling there, according to ISNA news agency.
Mashhad’s mayor Mohammad Kalaei said on Saturday that “circumstances in Mashhad have become more serious and worrying” as infections grow.
The mayor also urged officials to “impose a quarantine” on the holy city.
The outbreak in Iran is one of the deadliest outside of China, where the disease originated.
Jahanpour called on Iranians to “take the coronavirus seriously” and especially be mindful of elderly relatives who are most vulnerable to the infection.
Despite such warnings people were still seen on state television crowding public areas.
Between feel-good programming of bloopers and comedy, it showed a bank manager at a busy branch calling on people to do their transactions online.
Iran said on Friday that security forces would clear streets nationwide within 24 hours so all citizens can be checked for coronavirus.
But Iranian media gave no indication of the operation taking place on Sunday and officials made no mention of the measure.
Members of the Basij, a volunteer militia loyal to Iran’s establishment, were involved in helping people by handing out sanitary items on Tehran’s streets.
Several politicians and officials, both sitting and former, have been infected with the virus, and some have died from the illness.
The latest suspected case was Ayatollah Hashem Bahtayi Golpayegani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with appointing and monitoring Iran’s supreme leader.
President Hassan Rouhani denied lockdowns had been imposed on entire areas, and said provincial officials were not allowed to decide on the issue.
“Neither today, nor during Nowrouz and before or after it, we have no quarantine and all businesses are free and government services will continue,” Rouhani said at a televised news conference with business-owners.
“Provinces are under no circumstances allowed to decide regarding closures,” he added, noting all decisions would be made by the Tehran-based headquarters tasked with fighting coronavirus.
Rouhani announced a set of measures designed to ease pressure on businesses, including later deadlines for the payment of taxes, loans and bills.
Cash handouts of up to six million rials ($38) would go to three million impoverished households whose main breadwinners are “peddlers” or in temporary jobs.
Another four million households would receive low-interest loans from between 10-20 million rials ($63-$127) with the government subsidizing part of their payment.