Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed President Hassan Rouhani as the chairman of the Coronavirus Prevention and Control Task Force, Deputy Majles Speaker Massoud Pezshkian said in an interview on Iran's state TV on Tuesday March 10.
However, Rouhani who spoke at the cabinet meeting on Wednesday did not mention the appointment but tried to shed light on ambiguities about travel ban and lockdowns to curb the spread of coronavirus outbreak.
Rouhani's appointment followed widespread criticism of disease control initiatives, or in fact the lack of them, and Rouhani's absence from the scene which was criticized by the people and officials alike.
According to Pezeshkian, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani wrote a letter to Khamenei asking him to personally lead the Coronavirus Prevention and Control Task Force or to put it under the supervision of Vice-President Jahangiri, but Khamenei tasked Rouhani with leading the task force.
Anecdotal accounts on social media say the appointment was meant to put an end to Rouhani's evasion of his responsibility. Meanwhile, counter-arguments indicate that Health Minister Saeed Namaki's failure as the task force's leader prompted Larijani to demand for strict measures to put the task force back on track.
Mousavi Largani, a member of parliament from Falavarjan near Isfahan sarcastically said that Rouhani was the only one who took the advice about staying home seriously and has locked himself indoors while his presence is needed to confront the crisis.
Khamenei’s office has not issued an official decree about the appointment.
Pezeshkian said Wednesday afternoon that what his original remark was not reflected properly by the media. But a video of his remarks are available online and IRGC-linked Tasnim news agency has also reported the same. Therefore, he must have been under pressure to deny what he has said on live TV and as it is usually the case in the Iranian media, he accused the media of ‘misreporting his comment.”
However, In his first remarks about the crisis the president ruled out criticism of his absence and said at the cabinet meeting on Wednesday that he supported the Health Ministry's performance, particularly in the area of releasing infection and fatality figures.
However, in a move slightly different from his declared position against imposing quarantine on critical places like Qom, Rouhani said on Wednesday that new arrangements will be made during the coming days to control outgoing traffic from the cities rather than stopping people at their destination.
None of these positions are likely to silence the critics as the virus is spreading rapidly and an end to the crisis is not in sight. In all, like always, Rouhani tried to play down the crisis while he stressed that the people should take the outbreak seriously.
The head of the state TV Ali Askari said on Tuesday the crisis is expected to reach its peak in one month's time by the end of the first week of April. In another development, media professionals have harshly criticized Ali Askari for not stopping major TV series productions involving dozens of actors and 700 extras, while reportedly two in the crew have been tested positive for the virus.
Wednesday morning, the spokesman for Health Ministry, Kianush Jahanpur, announced that the official death toll has risen to 354 and the number of confirmed cases of infection has reached 9,000.
The death toll includes 63 new deaths during the past 24 hours, he said. In an elaborate change of approach, the spokesman did not offer the sum total of cases in each province as he did during the past weeks, and instead he only mentioned the number of new cases in each region.
He said 958 people have been tested positive for the virus during the past day including 256 in Tehran, 170 in Isfahan, 53 in Qom and 54 in Alborz and 32 in Mazandaran province.
Like the previous days, he also gave a figure about those who have recovered and have been discharged from hospitals. The figure for Wednesday was 2,959.
There is very little trust in figures released by the Health Ministry. Local officials in particular have seriously challenged these figures and offered their own statistics. A few including a nurse in Qom have been reportedly arrested for giving away number of deaths, contradicting official figures.
An investigative report by Radio Farda puts the number of those who died as a result of Coronavirus in Iran at 927 as of Tuesday based on remarks made by local officials all over the country.