Tehran, Iran – Concerns are growing about the resurgence of COVID-19 as the Iranian New Year approaches and many are traveling across the country.
Millions of Iranians typically travel locally, mostly to the country’s lush northern provinces, and visit family and loved ones during Nowruz – Saturdays – and the holidays after.
Authorities have urged people to limit travel and in-person visits, but even if a fraction of Nowruz’s usual activity takes place, it could lead to another wave of infections across the country.
Additionally, on Tuesday evening, Iranians celebrated Charshanbe Suri, a festival of rallies and fireworks to mark the last Wednesday before Nowruz. Videos posted on social media often showed few masks as people danced and jumped over the fires.
Iran has already suffered three major waves in the 13 months since it first recognized the presence of the coronavirus, with more than 61,000 deaths and 1.76 million infections.
Before quickly becoming the country worst affected by the pandemic in the Middle East, Iran reported its first cases by suddenly announcing in mid-February 2020 that two people had died in the city of Qom, south of the capital. Tehran.
The announcement came just two days before the legislative elections, and after weeks of speculation and denial of reports of suspected COVID-19 patients.
Authorities have repeatedly been accused of hiding the true scale of the pandemic in the early months, accusations they have denied.
A deadly year with COVID
During the first wave, infection rates and deaths continued to rise to a peak of over 3,000 daily cases and 150 daily deaths at the end of March, during Nowruz’s holiday from Last year.
But as many people stayed at home during vacations and businesses, and most government offices were closed, the curve was curbed to a low in mid-May.
As the months passed and the closures were gradually lifted, the virus grew again, this time stronger.
By the end of July, when the second wave had reached its peak, around 230 Iranians were losing their lives every day as more than 2,500 new cases were recorded across the country.
After more partial shutdowns and greater adherence to public health guidelines, coronavirus cases declined, but around 100 people were still dying every day.
The situation only worsened from there and became more and more dire over the next three months.
November was by far Iran’s deadliest month during the pandemic, as more than 13,000 Iranians fell victim to the virus and hundreds of thousands of new cases were identified.
Hospitals overflowed, the most affected intensive care units in Tehran and Iran were operating at full capacity at all times, and the majority of Iran’s 32 provinces were rated “red” on a color scale indicating the severity of the illnesses. epidemics.
Even as daily deaths hit 500 by the end of November, health officials warned the real number could be twice as high.
Things have cooled relatively since then, with daily deaths capped at less than 100, but President Hassan Rouhani warned last month that a fourth wave could be on the horizon depending on what happens over the next few months. next weeks.
US lockdowns and sanctions
Except in the first wave, when much was unknown about the coronavirus, the Iranian government has not imposed a total lockdown.
Starting in October, the government imposed a nationwide mandatory mask rule and set fines for those who violate it, in addition to those who willfully hide their illness and report others.
Fines have also been set for those who violate interprovincial travel bans and those who violate a 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. ban on using personal vehicles in high-risk cities.
Health Minister Saeed Namaki said on Wednesday “we are absolutely not in favor of travel” during the Nowruz holidays.
However, only travel to cities classified as “red” and “orange” using private vehicles has been officially banned, leaving hundreds of cities across the country free to travel.
Even at the height of the pandemic in November, the government imposed only a partial shutdown – for ‘red’ cities – which included shutting down all non-essential businesses, but allowed up to a third of government employees to work in offices.
The reason, according to authorities, is that the government simply cannot afford to temporarily shut down the economy and pay people to stay indoors.
The economy has continued to deteriorate since former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and imposed severe economic sanctions.
The pandemic has only exacerbated Iran’s economic pain, with the Labor Ministry saying it has cut more than a million jobs in an already volatile job market.
Even as officials say the economy is stabilizing thanks to increased local production, high inflation continues to put pressure on tens of millions of Iranians who cannot afford not to look for work.
Vaccines and the future
In addition to sanctions relief, which Iranian officials have pledged to be near even as efforts to restore the nuclear deal stall, Iran is counting on several vaccines to end its economic woes and to the pandemic.
Iran said the United States had actively tried to hamper its efforts to buy COVID-19 vaccines by blocking money transfers, but Rouhani said on Wednesday that Iran had managed to buy “more than 16 Million Doses ”to COVAX, a global immunization initiative under Global Health. Organization.
While these vaccines, including 4.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, have yet to be delivered, Iran has so far received 1.16 million doses from Russia, China, the India and 100,000 of its joint vaccine with Cuba.
“But our hope does not lie in these imports, but in domestic production,” Namaki said on Tuesday of the inoculation of the Iranian population of more than 82 million people.
The country also began human trials on Fakhravac on Tuesday, its third local COVID-19 vaccine named after nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, assassinated in late November near Tehran in an attack blamed on Israel.
Iran’s most prominent candidate, called COVIran Barekat, began the second phase of its human trials on Monday, which is expected to be merged with the third phase soon.
An mRNA vaccine developed by the Razi Serum and Vaccine Institute is also in development, having started its first phase of human trials earlier this month.
Namaki said Iran would soon become “one of the world’s largest and best vaccine producers” as the country launched a production line that is expected to produce three million doses per month and increase production by up to to 15 million a month ago. middle of the year.