Iranian deputy health minister, lawmaker test positive for coronavirus as death toll climbs to 16

Updated February 25, 2020

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An Iranian man wears a protective masks as he sits in a bus in Tehran on Feb 25. — Reuters via WANA
An Iranian man wears a protective masks as he sits in a bus in Tehran on Feb 25. — Reuters via WANA

Iran's Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi and a member of parliament tested positive for the coronavirus as the death toll inside the country rose to 16 on Tuesday as Iranians worry that authorities could be underestimating the scale of outbreak.

Iran has the highest number of coronavirus deaths outside China, where the virus emerged in December and more than 2,600 have died.

“My corona test is positive [...] I don't have a lot of hope of continuing life in this world,” Mahmoud Sadeghi, the parliamentarian from Tehran, wrote on Twitter.

Also among the infected was the deputy health minister, who posted a video online announcing his infection which was shown on state media.

“Among those who had been suspected of the virus, 35 (new cases) have been confirmed and two died of the coronavirus infection,” said Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur. He said 95 people had been infected across Iran.

Jahanpur put the death toll at 15, but the state news agency later said one person infected by the virus had died in the city of Saveh. Some unconfirmed reports gave a higher death toll.

The outbreak in Iran has coincided with mounting US pressure on Iran's clerical rulers that has hit the economy hard. In 2018, the United States exited Tehran's nuclear deal with major powers and reimposed sanctions.

Worried that official numbers could underestimate the scale of Iran's outbreak, many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing facts.

Popular anger has been high for months over the handling of a Ukrainian passenger plane crash in January, which the military took three days to admit was caused by an Iranian missile fired in error.

The incident revived anti-government protests that rocked the country in November against a hike in fuel prices, which swiftly turned political with calls for Iran's rulers to step down, before authorities cracked down.

The head of the Medical Science University in the holy city of Qom, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, expressed concern over “the spread of those people infected by the virus across the city”, adding the health ministry had banned releasing figures linked to the coronavirus.

'Stay at home'

Authorities on Tuesday ordered the nationwide cancellation of concerts and soccer matches and the closure of schools and universities in many provinces, and urging Iranians to stay home.

Iran said on Monday 900 cases were suspected, dismissing claims by a lawmaker from Qom who said 50 people had died in the city, the epicentre of the new coronavirus outbreak.

“It is an uninvited and inauspicious visitor. God willing we will get through [...] this virus,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a televised speech.

Iran, which confirmed its first two deaths last week in Qom, has yet to say how many people it has quarantined, but the semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people had been hospitalised.

The virus outbreak threatens to isolate Iran further, with several countries suspending flights after coronavirus cases in travellers from Iran were confirmed in Canada, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some neighbouring countries closed their borders. United Arab Emirates state media said Dubai airport had suspended all flights to and from Iran.

Oman's Khasab port is suspending the import and export of goods to and from Iran from Wednesday, operator Marafi said on Twitter.

US says Iran may have suppressed 'vital details'

US State Secretary Mike Pompeo on Tuesday said the United States was “deeply concerned” Iran may have covered up details about the spread of coronavirus, and he called on all nations to “tell the truth.”

“The US is deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country,” Pompeo told reporters, as he also criticised Beijing for what he characterised as the censorship of media and medical professionals.

“All nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organisations,” he said.