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Iran Sets Coronavirus Record as Capital Returns to Lockdown

Iran reported its highest daily Covid-19 death toll and its largest single-day rise in infections on Monday, as the country imposed a second lockdown of its capital to contain a resurgent outbreak.

The government over the weekend ordered a shutdown of schools, movie theaters, beauty salons, coffee shops, mosques and other businesses and institutions in Tehran to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They are the toughest restrictions since Iran gradually reopened from its first nationwide lockdown in April after emerging as the Middle East’s biggest virus hot spot.

“The transmission of this virus is getting out of control,” Payam Tabarsi, head of the infection ward at Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari hospital for respiratory diseases, told the reformist Mardomsalari newspaper Monday. Some 80% of health workers at the hospital have been infected with the coronavirus.

“Health-care personnel are exhausted and fatigued, and the number of critical patients increases every day,” he said.

Iran is in the throes of a third surge of coronavirus infections. On Monday it added 3,902 infections and 235 deaths to its total toll—a record number of deaths that it also hit in late July. Roughly 475,000 people in Iran have been confirmed as infected, and more than 27,000 have died from Covid-19.

While most of the country has seen rising infection rates, Tehran and its suburbs, a metropolitan area of some 16 million residents, has been a main coronavirus hot spot since the outbreak in Iran began in February.

As in other countries, the easing of Iran’s first lockdown increased the contagion risk by allowing people to gather in closer proximity. The most recent surge follows a national religious holiday, during which many Iranians travelled.

The government has largely blamed residents for failing to adhere to health guidelines, including social distancing and mask wearing, and weeks ago warned that travel during the holidays would lead to a surge in infections.

The difficulty in getting the virus under control reflects an attempt by Iranian authorities to balance public health concerns with a need to keep the country’s sanctions-battered economy alive.

The pandemic hit Iran’s economy particularly hard, as the Islamic Republic was already struggling under U.S. sanctions imposed after President Trump in 2018 withdrew from an international nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers.

The new U.S. sanctions isolated Iran from global financial markets and diminished its exports, including oil, leaving Tehran with fewer engines than most other countries to keep up economic activity when forced to go into lockdown to contain Covid-19.

Such restrictions slashed the purchasing power of Iranian citizens as they rattled Iran’s volatile currency. The open-market value of the rial hit a record of 300,000 to the U.S. dollar last week, up from around 140,000 in February, before the pandemic. Officially, the rial trades at 42,000 to the dollar.

Bans on religious tourism have added to Iran’s economic pain. Weeks ago, Iran canceled ceremonies for Muharram, one of the most important religious holidays for the world’s Shiite Muslims. This week, processions for Arbaeen, another important religious holiday, also were canceled.

The deep economic crisis has made the government reluctant to impose another lockdown, after loosening the first one in April. But health officials recommend even stricter measures.

Alireza Zali, head of the capital’s corona task force, called for the shutdown to be extended for longer than a week.

“A one-week shutdown won’t have any diminishing impact on the transmission of the disease,” Mr. Zali told the national medical council’s website. “The situation in Tehran is completely critical.”

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The health ministry said 28 of the country’s 31 provinces were now coded “red,” indicating the highest level of contagion risk. Health officials said restrictions might be imposed on travel around the country, which previously helped spread the virus.

“Hospitals are full. There is no space for new patients and ICU beds have been occupied to a great extent,” Masoud Mardani, a member of the national corona task force’s scientific committee, told state television. “If people travel we will probably have to set up field hospitals.”

Health officials have warned that the country’s hospitals are overwhelmed with new cases, and its health personnel are increasingly falling victim to the virus.

Corrections & Amplifications
Aresu Eqbali is one of the authors of this article. An earlier version incorrectly spelled his last name as Eqbal. (Oct. 5, 2020)

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at [email protected]

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