Iran issued its most dire warning yet Tuesday about the outbreak of the new coronavirus ravaging the country, suggesting “millions” could die in the country if the public keeps traveling and ignoring health guidance.
A state television journalist who also is a medical doctor gave the warning only hours after hardline Shiite faithful the previous night pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that had just been closed over fears of the virus.
Roughly nine out of 10 of the over 18,000 cases of the new virus confirmed across the Middle East come from Iran, where authorities denied for days the risk the outbreak posed. Officials have now implemented new checks for people trying to leave major cities ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday, but have hesitated to quarantine the areas.
That’s even as the death toll in Iran saw another 13% increase Tuesday. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said the virus had killed 135 more people to raise the total to 988 amid over 16,000 cases. Tehran confirmed 1,178 new cases in the past 24 hours, a health official said according to Reuters on Wednesday.
Most people infected by the new coronavirus experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The Iranian state TV journalist, Dr. Afruz Eslami, cited a study by Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology, which offered three scenarios. If people begin to cooperate now, Iran will see 120,000 infections and 12,000 deaths before the outbreak is over, she said. If they offer medium cooperation, there will be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths, she said.
But if people fail to follow any guidance, it could collapse Iran’s already-strained medical system, Eslami said. If the “medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be 4 million cases, and 3.5 million people will die,” she said, according to The Associated Press.
Eslami did not elaborate on what metrics the study used, but even reporting it on Iran’s tightly controlled state television represented a major change for a country whose officials had for days denied the severity of the crisis.
Late on Monday night, angry crowds stormed into the courtyards of Mashhad’s Imam Reza shrine and Qom’s Fatima Masumeh shrine. Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That has worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran’s Shiite clergy to close them.
Earlier on Monday, the state TV had announced the shrines’ closure, sparking the demonstrations.
“We are here to say that Tehran is damn wrong to do that!” one Shiite cleric shouted at the shrine in Mashhad, according to online video. Others joined him in chanting: “The health minister is damn wrong to do that, the president is damn wrong to do that!”
Police later dispersed the crowds, state media reported. Religious authorities and a prominent Qom seminary called the demonstration an “insult” to the shrine in a statement, urging the faithful to rely on “wisdom and patience” amid the closure.
Iran’s shrines draw Shiites from all over the region for pilgrimages, likely contributing to the spread of the virus across the Middle East.
State TV reported that Iran had deployed teams to screen travelers leaving major cities in 13 provinces, including the capital, Tehran. But Iran has 31 provinces and authorities haven’t taken the step to lock down the country like in Iraq and Lebanon, where it wields influence.
Also on Monday, Tehran temporarily freed about 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners, a spokesman for its judiciary said on Tuesday, in response to the coronavirus epidemic.
“Some 50 percent of those released are security-related prisoners … Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak,” said Gholamhossein Esmaili.
Esmaili said only those serving sentences of less than five years had been freed, while political prisoners and others charged with heavier sentences linked to their participation in anti-government protests remained in jail.
“Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak,” Esmaili said.
He did not elaborate on when those released would have to return to jail.
Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, said earlier in March that Iranian prisoners have been infected with coronavirus.
Iran has released at least a dozen political prisoners in the past days, according to activists and rights groups. But prominent political prisoners still remain in jail.
The United States has called for the release of dozens of dual nationals and foreigners held mainly on spying charges in Iran, saying that Washington will hold the government directly responsible for any American deaths.