Iran Battles to Contain Panic After Virus Deaths Multiply

(Bloomberg) -- Flights were grounded, schools shuttered and religious shrines disinfected, but as Iran struggles to contain the spread of coronavirus there’s panic, disarray and questions over who to believe.

Within hours of announcing the first confirmed cases last Wednesday, the authorities said that two people had died from the disease. That was two days before elections brought millions of people into public buildings—including hospitals—to cast votes just as the contagion escalated. Office workers in Tehran are now being told to work from home.

The threat of a pandemic after the virus also spread in Italy and South Korea sent financial markets tumbling on Monday. Iran, the Middle East’s most populous country after Egypt, has disclosed 95 cases and 15 deaths, making it the epicenter for the region. The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq have all reported their own cases linked to Iran.

“The infection is not as scary as the chaos and panic in reaction to it,” said Ahmadreza, 35, a financial analyst in Tehran. He declined to be identified by his full name because of the sensitivity of speaking with foreign media in Iran. “People are swarming the hospitals to get checked for the virus, even if they don’t have the symptoms. They’re stockpiling food and staples and stores are selling masks at ten times the price.”

Iran Battles to Contain Panic After Virus Deaths Multiply

It’s just the latest disaster to hit Iran, though the potential consequences look just as great as with the country’s protracted standoff with the U.S.

With its oil sales pummeled by American sanctions, the lifeblood of the economy has been exports of non-oil products around the region. They are also now about to be devastated by disruption to sea ports to the north and south and at long land borders with Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The head of Tehran’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry asked the government to set-up quarantine facilities on the country’s borders to halt the spread of the virus.

“In Iran, with such a diverse and massive geography it is proving very difficult to contain and the country has never experienced something like that,” Cyrus Razzaghi, president of Ara Enterprise, a business consultancy in Tehran, said by telephone from the Iranian capital. “I’ve never seen anything like this, there’s a lot that’s unknown.”

Faith in the ability of the authorities to tackle the outbreak—and clearly update the nation on what’s going on—is low after a series of incidents in recent months. In November, a sudden, unannounced increase in gasoline prices led to protests across the country. Last month, the government was forced to admit the military had accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane packed with Iranians after a series of denials.

The sense of anger was evident at the weekend, with mass disqualifications of reformist and moderate candidates helping hardliners make huge gains in last Friday’s election, a victory enabled by a record low turnout.

Iran Battles to Contain Panic After Virus Deaths Multiply

“The plane crash incident was the last straw,” said Nastaran, 41, a mother of one and housewife in Tehran. “It showed their hand. They don't know anything about management, let alone crisis management. They have no management and no clear strategy for dealing with the spread of the virus.”

Officials have tried to calm people after cases of coronavirus worldwide jumped to almost 80,000 with more than 2,600 deaths, mainly in China. In language echoing his response to public anger over the plane disaster, government spokesman Ali Rabiei urged people not to politicize the outbreak.

Officials announced on Jan. 31 that air routes to China had been closed because of coronavirus, yet the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Iran’s Mahan Air still flew nine flights following the announcement.

According to IRNA, these were flights sending “humanitarian aid” to China to help with the virus, including some 3 million face masks. A spokesman for Mahan Air has denied that the airline was the source of Iran’s outbreak, the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency reported on Monday.

With at least 34 cases, the city of Qom, about 150 kilometers south of Tehran is emerging as the country’s coronavirus hotspot. The health minister went on national television to advise people against going to holy places and shrines, especially the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom, a major pilgrimage site in the holy city.

On Monday morning, a lawmaker from Qom said up to 50 people were dead, a number swiftly denied by the health ministry and other officials. That didn’t stop other parliamentarians from disinfecting his chair in the chamber. The head of Qom’s University of Medical Sciences has tested positive for the virus, Health Ministry spokesman Iraj Harirchi said.

Iran Battles to Contain Panic After Virus Deaths Multiply

Indeed, several of the cases that have been reported in the region, appear related to pilgrimage or from travel from religious sites in Iran. The Kuwait infections were linked to people returning from Mashhad, Iran’s holiest city. Iraq’s only case so far was found in the city of Najaf, a holy city with a large Iranian population and a major pilgrimage destination for millions of Iranians every year.

At the Golpayegani Hospital near the center of the city, a nurse described the situation as very serious. She declined to be identified by name because she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly amid heightened anxiety over what might come.

The hospital is not given official tallies of confirmed infections or deaths; that information is held and made public by the city’s chief medical officer and coroner’s office, she said. The first time the hospital was aware of any confirmed cases in the city was four days ago, according to the nurse.

“People are trusting social media more than official channels because of the way they try to control the narrative in everything, from the plane crash to elections and now the coronavirus,” said Ahmadreza in Tehran.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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