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Iran's Second Largest City At Risk Of Coronavirus Disaster

Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city and home to Shrine of Imam Reza is at risk of turning into new coronavirus (COVID-19) hotspot. FILE PHOTO

Iran's second largest city and a pilgrim destination, Mashhad, is facing the threat of turning into a new coronavirus (COVID-19) hotspot if immediate measures including a lockdown are not put into effect, local officials warned on Saturday. The situation seems critical enough to have forced the powerful ultraconservative religious and political establishment of the city to capitulate and shut down the city's shrine for three days.

On Saturday several officials including the governor of Khorasan Razavi Province of which Mashhad is the capital, the Chairman of the City Council of Mashhad, as well as several citizens' groups and student bodies raised the alarm and called on the authorities to quarantine the city.

"Much of the worst we had predicted is happening now," Mohammad-Reza Kalaiee, the reformist Mayor of Mashhad who since the early days of the outbreak has advocated quarantining the city wrote on his Instagram page on Friday. He has just recovered from the infection himself.

On Saturday, the Governor of Mashhad said the decision to quarantine the city with its three million inhabitants needs to be taken by the Coronavirus Task Force. The Taskforce itself has been suffering from lack of leadership with required authority.

The decisions that the Taskforce has made so far appear to have been overruled by other centers of power including the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard. On Friday Khamenei appointed the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, to coordinate the armed forces' growing involvement and activities in connection with the management of the worsening coronavirus epidemic.

Since the very early days of the epidemic in the country the ultraconservative clerics of Mashhad strongly resisted cancellation of religious events including Friday prayers. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayer Imam of the city who is also the Custodian of the Shrine of Imam Reza, and Khamenei's representative in the Province said the government order on February 28 to cancel the prayers in major cities was not "justifiable" because holding the prayers is "God's command". He has now even consented to holding "virtual" religious ceremonies.

Despite government Coronavirus Taskforce advice clerics of Mashhad refused to cancel events at Shrine of Imam Reza including this ceremony on February 24.

The situation in Mashhad is difficult to gauge for outside observers due to the government's secretiveness about the dimensions of the epidemic but even piecemeal official information can be quite revealing and concerning. On March 13, the infection rate in Khorasan Razavi Province as announced by the Health Ministry leapt to 395 with 110 new cases. The 41 percent increase in the number of patients in only 24 hours was followed by only 30 new cases on March 14.

Officials have not explained the latest lower infection number but and the number of patients who have died of the disease in the province is not known as the Ministry only announces the death toll for the whole country which now stands at 611.

The first two cases of coronavirus infection in Mashhad were only announced on March 1, both of them in connection with Qom, another pilgrim destination and the epicenter of the outbreak in the country. The first cases in Iran were reported on February 19, and it seems strange that Mashhad had no cases for almost two weeks.

The economy of Mashhad is hugely dependent on religious tourism with more than 55 percent of all hotels in the country. About 30 million pilgrims from across Iran as well as more than 2 million from countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Iraq flock to the shrine every year. The city has been preparing for the most important of all Iranian secular calendar events, the New Year (Nowrouz) celebrated on March 20 this year. Many of the faithful had planned to start the year by visiting the shrine.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who is himself from Mashhad normally delivers his nationally broadcast New Year speech at the shrine and announces his vision for the coming year. Earlier this week Khamenei who many hold responsible for the delay in admitting the arrival of the virus in Iran in order to ensure a higher turnout in the Parliament elections, cancelled his speech and annual visit to his hometown due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.