Iran has shut down inter-city travel in its first major crackdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, amid fears of a ‘second wave’ of infections as the death toll surged past 2,000 today.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei announced that ‘new journeys will be banned, leaving towns and cities will be banned’ after many Iranians ignored official advice and travelled for the start of the Persian New Year holiday last weekend.
Rabiei warned that the hundreds of thousands of Iranians on the roads ‘could cause a second wave of the coronavirus’.
Interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli told state media today that the travel ban would enter force ‘tomorrow or the day after’, either Thursday or Friday.
It came as Iran announced 143 new deaths from the virus today, raising the official toll from 1,934 to 2,077 – the fourth-highest in the world.
Grave diggers wearing yellow and blue protective suits bury the body of Abdollah Zavieh, a journalist who died of coronavirus, at a cemetery in Tehran yesterday
Many Iranians continued to travel for the start of the Persian New Year last weekend (pictured here on a highway in Tehran), sparking fears of a second wave of infections
Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said ‘our colleagues have registered 2,206 new cases of Covid-19 infection’ in the last 24 hours, taking the total from 24,811 to 27,017.
The figure is the largest daily increase so far, beating the previous record of 1,762 which was set just yesterday.
There has been much suspicion over the accuracy of Iran’s figures, although the death rate is no longer quite as much of an outlier as it once was.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani had already warned that his government was poised to introduce tough new measures against the virus.
Unlike Italy, Spain or China – the three countries with higher death tolls – Iran had yet to impose any lockdown on its own people until today, relying on verbal appeals for people to stay at home.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians nonetheless took to the roads as usual last weekend to spend the two-week Persian New Year holiday with family, despite fears of the disease spreading from the big cities to the countryside.
‘People should return to their home towns as quickly as possible,’ government spokesman Rabiei said as he announced the ban today.
He said the government would issue a statutory instrument setting out fines for violations.
‘Of course, the security forces are going to stop it,’ he said, referring to travel on Iran’s major highways.
Rouhani had warned that the new measures were likely to be ‘difficult’ for the public.
‘This (new) plan is strict and it will create difficulties and restrictions for travel, and prompt people who have already travelled to return home faster,’ Rouhani said.
The president said gatherings would also be restricted during Sizdah Bedar on April 1, a nature festival during which Iranians traditionally have picnics outdoors.
‘These are tough decisions that are necessary to protect lives. All parks may be closed, and Sizdah Bedar will not be like previous years, but we have no choice but to do so,’ Rouhani said, adding that details of the plan will come shortly.
‘There has been a long debate within the National Committee for Fighting the Coronavirus about how to strengthen the measures we have taken,’ Rouhani said in televised comments to the cabinet.
‘We need to step up those measures,’ he said, adding that the health ministry had ‘presented the committee with a plan’ to be ‘approved and published’ today.
‘It may create problems for people’s travel plans and require that people return home early,’ the president said.
‘It could stop the next wave of journeys. People have to realise that these are difficult decisions that are being taken to protect people’s lives.
‘But we have no choice, because the lives of Iranians are important to us.’
Relatives wearing face masks kneel over a gravestone after a journalist’s burial yesterday at the Behesht Zahra cemetery in the Iranian capital
A man wearing a face mask carries a bag as he walks past a closed shop in Tehran, where the government is moving towards imposing quarantine measures
Health department spokesman Jahanpour also announced that when government offices reopen on Tuesday, many civil servants will be working from home.
‘Only around a third of government staff are authorised to work in the office and only for administrative tasks vital to the public,’ he said, adding that all offices would practise ‘social distancing’.
The country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged Iranians to follow state instructions ‘so that Almighty God will put an end to this calamity for the Iranian people, for all Muslim nations and for all mankind’.
Rouhani said the new measures would be adopted for 15 days and would be ‘implemented thoroughly until Saturday, April 4,’ the day when children normally return to school after the holiday.
A senior Iranian official yesterday ruled out help from ‘foreign forces’ to deal with the coronavirus epidemic after an offer from a France-based medical charity.
‘Due to Iran’s national mobilisation against the virus and the full use of the medical capacity of the armed forces, it is not necessary for now for hospital beds to be set up by foreign forces, and their presence is ruled out,’ said Alireza Vahabzadeh, an adviser to Iran’s health minister.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) had said that it planned to send a nine-member team and equipment to set up a 50-bed hospital to Iran.
The plan stirred opposition from ultra-conservative circles in the Islamic republic who charged that MSF staff would serve as ‘spies’.
In a statement, MSF said it had obtained the necessary permissions from the Iranian authorities, and voiced its ‘incomprehension’ at its offer of help being rejected.
Two cargo planes had already arrived in Tehran carrying the necessary equipment to build the facility, it added.
Iranian health workers set up a makeshift hospital inside the Iran Mall, north-west of Tehran, as the country battles one of the world’s worst outbreaks
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (centre) is among the masked officials at a government planning meeting in Tehran yesterday
In addition ‘an international team of nine people, including two intensive care doctors, had already arrived in Esfahan, where they were welcomed by the local health authorities’.
The NGO said it was ready ‘to rapidly redeploy its emergency team and treatment capacity elsewhere in Iran, or to quickly transfer them to other countries in the region, where they are urgently needed’.
On Tuesday, the UN rights chief called for any sanctions imposed on countries like Iran facing medical shortages to be ‘urgently re-evaluated’.
Iran has been under crippling US sanctions in connection with its nuclear programme.
‘At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended,’ Michelle Bachelet said.
Bachelet’s office stressed that more than 50 Iranian medics had died since the first Covid-19 case was detected in the country five weeks ago.
Adding to Iran’s woes, floods caused by heavy rainfall since Sunday, mainly in western provinces, have killed at least 12 people and left two others missing.
Mojtaba Khaledi, a spokesman for Iran’s rescue services, said that warnings have been issued of more heavy rains for later this week in western Iran.