Iran reports 113 new coronavirus deaths, says virus fight 'severely hampered' by US sanctions

Updated March 15, 2020

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Firefighters prepare their fogging machines to disinfect a street against the new coronavirus as some people watch and pedestrians walk, in western Tehran, Iran. — AP
Firefighters prepare their fogging machines to disinfect a street against the new coronavirus as some people watch and pedestrians walk, in western Tehran, Iran. — AP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s fight against the coronavirus was being “severely hampered” by US sanctions.

Iran is battling one of the worst outbreaks outside China. It reported 113 new deaths from the virus on Sunday, bringing its death toll to 724. The real number of infections could be even higher, as questions have been raised about the government’s transparency.

State media said Rouhani wrote to a number of world leaders, without naming them.

“In (a) letter to counterparts @HassanRouhani informs how efforts to fight #COVID19 pandemic in Iran have been severely hampered by US sanctions, urging them to cease observing them,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter.

“It is IMMORAL to let a bully kill innocents,” Zarif said.

“If the trend continues, there will not be enough capacity,” Ali Reza Zali, who is leading the campaign against the outbreak, was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA news agency.

Iran is believed to have around 110,000 hospital beds, including 30,000 in the capital, Tehran. Authorities have pledged to set up mobile clinics as needed.

Zali also acknowledged that “many” of those who have died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus were otherwise healthy, a rare admission by local authorities that the virus does not only prey on the sick and elderly.

The Health Ministry released figures showing that while 55% of fatalities were in their 60s, some 15% were younger than 40.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Most people recover in a matter of weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by individuals with no visible symptoms.

Iran, the worst-affected country in the Middle East, said on Thursday it had asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in emergency funding to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

The escalating outbreak has damaged Iranian businesses and is bound to hit its non-oil exports after many neighbouring countries and trade partners shut their borders.

Iran’s economy was already battered by US sanctions that curb oil and gas exports crucial for government revenues. A slowdown in economic activity caused by the virus outbreak and a sustained closure of its borders are expected to lead to a contraction this year, analysts have said.

Steps taken by other Middle East countries

Countries across the Middle East have imposed sweeping travel restrictions, cancelled public events and in some cases called on non-essential businesses to close for the coming weeks.

In the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai, a global business and travel hub in the United Arab Emirates, authorities announced on Sunday that all movie theaters, arcades and gyms would be closed through the end of the month.

Dubai Parks & Resorts announced it would be closed through the end of the month. The sprawling amusement park, built at a cost of $3 billion, has lost hundreds of millions of dollars since opening.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, also shut down its amusement parks and museums through the end of the month, including Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Al-Aqsa is the latest in a series of religious sites where access has been halted or strictly limited. Saudi Arabia has halted Umrah to Makkah and Madinah and could be forced to limit or cancel the much larger Haj later this year. On Sunday, it announced the temporary closure of all mosques and called off Friday prayers.

Sheikh Omar Kiswani, the director of the Al-Aqsa mosque, said on Sunday that the closure of the mosque and other buildings on the compound would continue indefinitely.

The UAE’s central bank announced a $27 billion stimulus package directed at supporting banks and said regulatory limits on loans will be eased. Saudi Arabia announced its own $13 billion stimulus plan.

Tiny, oil-rich Kuwait meanwhile shut down malls, salons and barbershops to slow the spread of the virus. Authorities allowed coffee shops to remain open, but said no more than five customers can wait in line at a time and must be a meter apart from each other.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on serious corruption charges, which was supposed to begin this week, was postponed for two months due to restrictions on public gatherings.

Netanyahu has meanwhile been pressing for an emergency unity government with his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, following three inconclusive elections and more than a year of political deadlock. Gantz has appeared open to the idea.

Israel imposed sweeping travel and quarantine measures more than a week ago but has seen its number of confirmed cases double in the last two days, to around 200. On Saturday, the government said restaurants, malls, movies, gyms and daycare centers would close. Schools and universities have already been shut down until next month.

Jordan, which had previously reported just one infection in a man who later recovered, said it had confirmed six new cases. Four are French tourists while the other two are Jordanians, Health Minister Saad Jaber said on Sunday.

Jordan has suspended all flights into and out of the kingdom except for aid workers and diplomats, and has closed schools for two weeks. It has also banned the smoking of hookahs, or water pipes, in cafes.