Coronavirus crisis deepens in Iran as 50 deaths reported in Qom alone

Lawmaker accuses govt of hiding facts claiming the real toll is much higher than officially stated

By: AFP      Published: 02:33 PM, 24 Feb, 2020
Coronavirus crisis deepens in Iran as 50 deaths reported in Qom alone
Photo: social media

As many as 50 people have died in the Iranian city of Qom from the new coronavirus, Iran’s semiofficial ILNA news agency reported on Monday, as three neighbouring countries reported their first novel coronavirus cases claiming that all the infected patients had recently travelled to Iran.

The reported death toll figure is higher even than the number of confirmed cases of infections provided by the Iranian state officials - who say, with four more deaths on Monday, the toll stands at 12 deaths out of 47 cases of infections.

Iran government pledged transparency on virus figures after a lawmaker from Qom city on Monday accused the government of covering up the full extent of the coronavirus outbreak in the holy city.

According to semi-official news agency ISNA, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani accused Iran's health minister of "lying" about the outbreak.

An official from Qom, Ahmad Amiriabadi Farahani, was quoted by ILNA as saying that more than 250 people are in quarantined in the city, which is a popular place of religious study for Shia Muslims from across Iran and other countries.

He said the 50 deaths date as far back as Feb 13.

Iran, however, first officially reported cases of the virus and its first deaths on February 19.

Even the officially admitted 12 deaths from the outbreak in Iran are the highest number of fatalities outside China, the origin and epicentre of the pandemic.

But the government was sticking to its stance and saying it had provided real figures.

Iran's deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi strongly rejected the allegations by Qom city MP.

He vowed to step down if even one-fourth of the alleged death toll is proved.

Regional spread

Afghanistan, Kuwait and Bahrain on Monday reported their first novel coronavirus cases with the health officials of the countries claiming all the infected patients had recently travelled to Iran.

All the neighbouring countries have shut their land borders and many halted air traffic as part of efforts to contain the spread of the deadly disease.

"I announce the first positive coronavirus (case) in Herat," health minister Firozuddin Feroz told a press conference, calling on citizens to avoid travel to the western province which borders Iran.

Feroz said the patient had travelled to the Iranian holy city of Qom.

"Our people should avoid handshakes, hugging and kissing."

Kuwait reported three infections and Bahrain one.

"Tests conducted on those coming from the Iranian holy city of Mashhad showed there were three confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19)," the Kuwaiti health ministry said in a statement posted on Twitter.

It said the cases were of a 53-year-old Kuwaiti man, a 61-year-old Saudi citizen and a 21-year-old stateless Arab. 

"All three cases are under constant observation by the health authority," the ministry added. 

Bahrain's health ministry also reported the country's first COVID-19 case on Monday after a "citizen arriving from Iran was suspected of having contracted the virus based on emerging symptoms". 

The patient was transferred to a medical centre for "immediate testing", which proved positive for the infection, the ministry added.

Borders closure

Four immediate neighbours of the Islamic republic -- Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Armenia -- have closed their land borders, while three other countries have imposed restrictions on air traffic.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan share long, porous borders with Iran that are often used by smugglers and human traffickers, while millions of Afghan refugees currently live in the Islamic Republic -- raising fears that the virus could easily spread over the border.

Desperate and jobless Afghans have crossed the porous border with Iran for years in search of work to support their struggling families back home.

But hundreds of thousands of Afghans have returned home in recent years as US sanctions have battered the Iranian economy.

The war-torn South Asian nation is poorly equipped to deal with a potential outbreak, with health authorities struggling to deliver basic services across the mountainous, poverty-stricken country.

The novel coronavirus has spread to more than 25 countries, with more than 2,500 dead in China, and is causing mounting alarm due to new pockets of outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Last week, Kuwait banned the entry of all ships from the Islamic republic and suspended flights to and from the country. 

Kuwait had also banned non-citizens coming from Iran from entering the Gulf state and operated chartered flights to bring back hundreds of Kuwaiti Shiite pilgrims from the Islamic republic.

Around a third of Kuwait's 1.4 million citizens are Shia Muslims, who travel regularly to Iran to visit religious shrines. Kuwait also hosts roughly 50,000 Iranian workers.

Over half of Bahrain's population of under one million are Shia, who also travel frequently to Iran.

Iraq said it closed the only border crossing with Kuwait at Safwan, south of Basra, late Sunday.

Neighbouring United Arab Emirates has already announced 13 cases of the novel coronavirus, all of them foreigners. The latest were a 70-year-old Iranian man, whose condition is unstable, and his 64-year-old wife.

Qatar Airways said on Monday it will quarantine people arriving from Iran and South Korea, the biggest hotspot outside of China, for 14 days.

China's death toll from COVID-19 rose to nearly 2,600 on Monday. The virus has spread to more than 25 countries and is causing mounting alarm due to new outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.