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Intensity Of Pandemic Unabated In Iran, Along With Economic Crisis

Iranians wearing protective face masks carry a coffin during a funeral ceremony in Tehran, June 11, 2020
Iranians wearing protective face masks carry a coffin during a funeral ceremony in Tehran, June 11, 2020

The situation of COVID-19 pandemic in Iran appears to be deteriorating with 115 deaths and 2,563 new cases during the past day, amid concerns about the start of a new wave of infections and rumors about the possible resignation of Health Minister Saeed Namaki.

Health Ministry Spokeswoman Sima Lari says this has been the third consecutive day with a triple digit death toll and a high infection rate after a few weeks of steady decline in the number of new cases.

At the same time, Iran's currency rial fell to new lows against major currencies with almost one year of no meaningful oil exports due to U.S. sanctions. The weight of the pandemic stifling the local economy. In one month the currency has lost 20 percent of its value.

Iran's non-oil exports have also fallen steeply due to the pandemic in the region, depriving the government of some foreign currency income it was counting on to compensate for lost oil exports.

Health Ministry officials had earlier warned about a new surge in the outbreak as the government eased the not-so-strict lockdown regulations. Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi says COVID-19 is claiming more lives than the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Harirch added that the war claimed some 66 lives every day while over 100 people per day are dying as a result of COPVID-19 in Iran. Nevertheless, the official denied that a second wave has already started in Iran.

Meanwhile, Harichi added in an interview with the Iranian state television that there are serious doubts about the authenticity of the figures given away by the health ministry about the number of infections and the death toll. Earlier, the parliament’s research center, Tehran city officials, doctors and journalists had cast doubt on Iran’s official coronavirus numbers.

Lari said during an interview on the state television Monday evening that 192,439 Iranians have so far contracted the new coronavirus and 9,065 have died. She added that over 152,000 people have recovered, but there are 2,815 patients still in intensive care units.

Iran was one of the first countries after China to experience the coronavirus epidemic but after four months, it continues with almost the same intensity, unlike European countries where after the initial peak numbers have come down.

All this is happening against a political backdrop of differences between health minister Namaki and President Hassan Rouhani. The Minister has been insisting on thorough enforcement of social distancing and other lockdown measures from the onset of the pandemic while Rouhani has been pushing to "normalize" the situation with an early end to restrictions. Rouhani demanded an end to social distancing as early as late April. He has time and again stressed the economic cost of a tough policy by the government.

Monday night, it was said at the COVID-19 work group that Friday prayer congregations in many cities including Tehran may start as early as next week.

In the meantime, on June 14 the Telegram channel Eteraz-e Bazzar reported that Namaki did not take part in the COVID-19 Work Group meeting the previous evening. The channel quoted ministry insiders as saying that Namaki has said at a meeting with his deputies that he was planning to step down as health minister. Although obviously Telegram is just a social media platform, but the rumor has been circulating in other political circles in Tehran as well.

In another development, Sima Lari said that the situation is still "red" in ten provinces.

Prominent Journalist Arash Khoshkhou asked in a tweet on June 16, "Another 115 have died today. Why there is no total lockdown for 48 hours like Turkey?"

Meanwhile, in a letter to President Rouhani, the Iranian Nursing Council said that 7,400 Iranian nurses have contracted the coronavirus and 18 of them have died as of mid-June. The Council also warned of shortages of nurses amid a surge in new COVID-19 cases. The letter also criticized the government for its poor treatment of nurses who are mainly working on fixed term 89-day contracts as the government refuses to give them long-term employment contracts.

The letter added that despite the need for nurses, government-run medical school hospitals force their nurses to do long overtime work, but still some of them have not been paid for between 7 to 17 months.

In one of the latest reports, the health Ministry spokeswoman announced that the number of patients in hospitals have jumped in several provinces including Tehran, Mashad and Bushehr.

The media attribute the surge to early reopening of businesses and government offices while officials blame people's "carelessness." Experts, however, say early "normalization" could lead to a human catastrophe.