Iran, the crucible of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Middle East, smashed two grim records this week, reporting its largest number of deaths in a single 24 hours since the outbreak started in March and the largest number of new infections.
Iranian health officials say that Iran is deep into its third, and biggest, wave of the disease, and evidence suggests an exhausted and impoverished country is struggling to cope as trust in government diminishes, sanctions weaken the economy and hospitals report overcrowded intensive care units.
Mohammad Talebpour, the director of Sina hospital, the oldest in Tehran, said that if Iranians did not collectively take action and the disease persisted for another 18 months, as many as 300,000 people could die.
One-third of the medical staff at his hospital had at one point contracted the disease, Talebpour said.
COVID-19 has so far killed 29,070 Iranians, according to widely challenged official statistics, including 254 on Tuesday alone, just down on the daily record set on Monday of 272.
The number of people newly infected in the previous 24 hours was recorded on Tuesday as 4,108, just down on the record of 4,392 on Thursday last week.
In an attempt to force Iranians to abide by social distancing rules, including the compulsory wearing of masks in public, the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has introduced fines.
Masks have been compulsory in indoor public spaces since July.
However, Rouhani is nervous of a public backlash and concerned by the state of the economy now predicted by the IMF to contract by 5 percent this year.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei on Tuesday said that the fines were “a tool to achieve compliance, and not a goal in itself. The fine is a warning to exercise self-discipline.”
All of the income from the fines would go to the Iranian Ministry of Health to fight the pandemic, Rabiei said.
The police, the Basij paramilitary force and health inspectors would have powers to impose the fines and offenders would have two weeks to make payment into a ministry account, but the sight of Iranian police this week parading criminals on the back of trucks is a reminder of the methods that security services can deploy.
Iran has not hidden the disputes between officials over its handling of the crisis.
Iranian Medical Association president Mohammad Reza Zafarghandi has accused officials of ignoring warnings from health experts and said that the medical staff in Iran were exhausted.
He blamed the severity of the crisis on “some of the non-expert decisions,” saying that “some decisions were not made by experts, such as reopening schools with a requirement to attend or announcing protocols that people were not required to follow.”
The disease seems to be spreading most in the context of the family, but bakeries, schools and restaurants are also accused of frequently flouting the rules.
The crisis comes at a tumultuous time for Iran, as US-imposed sanctions on 18 private-sector banks are reducing Iran’s access to humanitarian goods and medicine.
The rial remains under pressure and the Iranian central bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati was in Iraq this week to try to gain access Iranian foreign exchange reserves stored there.
Rouhani, who is due to stand down next summer, is under growing criticism for his handling of the pandemic.
Critics, including many of those lining up to replace him in the elections next year, claim that he has handed too much responsibility for controlling the outbreak to provincial authorities.
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