“Quarantines belong to the Stone Age,” the Iranian health minister said late last month at a press briefing about COVID-19. The country is in no danger from the virus he said, while coughing and sweating severely.
One day later, he was under quarantine.
The story helps explain how Iran became one of the countries most affected by the new coronavirus. The government reports more than 17,000 cases of infection and over 1,100 deaths.
And many observers fear those numbers are even higher than officials say.
The days of Iranian denial of the virus gave it time to spread. And the conditions were right --- Iran celebrated its 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution with huge public gatherings. Later, people gathered at voting places to take part in parliamentary elections.
Now state television is warning the virus could kill “millions.”
Iran has one of the best medical systems in the Middle East. However, its hospitals appear to be in crisis. The country has asked other countries to provide it with 172 million masks. It has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $5 billion loan.
The major holiday of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is Friday. On Monday, Iran’s president asked people to stay home for the holiday. The next day, Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered a religious ruling banning “unnecessary” travel.
What happens next will affect not only Iran, but the wider world as well.
Amir A. Afkhami, a professor at George Washington University, is an Iran expert. He says the request for the $5 billion loan shows that Iran is realizing the situation is “out of control.”
Many unknowns about Iran’s outbreak remain. For example, officials have not identified “patient zero” - the first person infected. So, they also do not know where the first infection appeared.
Public comments on that issue suggest the city of Qom, 125 kilometers southwest of Tehran. How the virus arrived there remains in question.
Officials suggested that an Iranian businessman returned from China with the virus. Qom is home to major Shi’ite religious schools that include Chinese among the student population. The city lies along a $2.7 billion railroad project. A Chinese company is building the railroad. China is also building a solar power plant in Qom.
The pro-reform newspaper Aftab-e Yazd first warned of the virus in January.
“Mysterious virus at Iran’s gates,” the paper reported as China established a lockdown to control the spread of the new coronavirus.
Yet travel between China and Iran continued.
The first two coronavirus cases were reported February 19 with the announcement that both patients died in Qom.
The Health Ministry later shared maps that showed the virus moving across Iran.
Among the first infections in Tehran was Harirchi, the deputy health minister. COVID-19 killed several officials including Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a close adviser to Khamenei, Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, and Ahmad Tuyserkani, another adviser. Several lawmakers and a member of the country’s Assembly of Experts also died from the disease.
And, the virus infected a vice president and two government ministers, along with Revolutionary Guard members and doctors.
“We found out a little late that the coronavirus had entered Iran because we mistook it for the flu,” a deputy health minister later said.
A man in Qom recorded video of bodies that waited days for burial. The man said all died of COVID-19, although officials later said they did not have test results yet.
“The situation is terrible here and I hope God helps us,” the man said.
He was later arrested.
I’m John Russell.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
quarantine – n. the separation of a person to prevent him from spreading disease
lockdown – n. keeping everyone in place