TEHRAN: The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Iran passed the two-million mark on Thursday, while the daily caseload set a new record high in what a health official warned amounted to a “meteoric” spike.
As the Islamic republic reached the grim milestone, some health experts called for a lockdown of the capital Tehran to contain the country’s fourth Covid-19 wave. Iran is battling the Middle East’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, and officials have blamed the latest surge on trips made during last month’s Persian New Year holidays.
Over the past 24 hours, the country officially recorded 22,586 new cases of infection, reaching a new high, health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said. This marks an increase of more than 1,600 cases over the previous record, set just the day before.
Iran also recorded an additional 185 coronavirus-related deaths, Lari said, bringing the total to 63,884. Daily fatalities and infections had remained relatively stable below the 100 and 7,000 mark in January, rising only slightly until a sharp increase in late March.
Iran’s conservative and reformist press on Thursday blasted President Hassan Rouhani’s government for allowing holiday travel in the face of an expected new wave. It came after a top official said some in the national virus taskforce had opposed a travel ban before the holidays.
“Some prevented us from using the (new year holidays) as a golden opportunity to put out the coronavirus fire,” the deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, said on Wednesday. He described the Covid infection rate as “meteoric” and said it was now “highly probable” that Iran would suffer 600 deaths a day.
Some officials, including Health Minister Saeed Namaki, have admitted actual virus numbers are likely higher than official figures. Payam Tabresi, a health expert at Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari hospital, told the Ebtekar daily that locking down the capital for “at least two weeks” was the “only way”. “The situation is bad,” Tabresi said. “One really cannot imagine it being any worse.”
Authorities had warned of a rise in the spread of the more contagious British variant and a fourth wave prior to the holidays, strongly advising against travel. “We’ve now lost the reins” of the virus, Namaki said, complaining “no one listened” to him regarding holiday trips. Quoted by government-run Iran daily, Hadi Khaniki, a university communications lecturer, attributed the disregard for such advice to a “lack of trust and a gap” between the people and authorities.
Dozens of towns and cities including Tehran are classified as “red”, the highest rating on the coronavirus risk scale, requiring all non-essential businesses to close. “They allowed travelling, and Tehran went red again. What else could be the reason?” said Mohsen, a shopkeeper in Tehran, complaining that the shutdown would “ruin people’s businesses”.
“I think the shutdown should have happened two weeks ago(before the new Iranian year holidays), or even a month ago,” a jewelry seller said, identifying himself only by his family name, Gahsempour, whose business was ordered to be temporarily closed as well.
Iran has avoided imposing a full lockdown on its population of 82 million since the pandemic started more than a year ago. Instead, it has resorted to limited and shifting measures, such as temporary bans on travel or businesses.
The country launched its vaccination drive in February, but the campaign has progressed slower than authorities had hoped. Meanwhile, more than 700 million people across India were facing coronavirus vaccine shortages on Thursday, local media reported, as infection numbers hit yet another daily record.
Case numbers had eased in India but a second wave of the virus has since returned with a vengeance, with more than 126,000 new infections recorded in the past 24 hours, a new record.
Several regions have tightened curbs on activity while Maharashtra, the current epicentre of India’s epidemic and home to megacity Mumbai, is set to enter a lockdown at the weekend. Prime Minister Narendra Modi received his second shot on Thursday, tweeting that vaccines are “among the few ways we have to defeat the virus”. He urged others to follow his lead by getting vaccinated.
India’s vast vaccination programme is reportedly experiencing problems having administered 87 million shots so far in a population of 1.3 billion people. According to the Times of India, 10 states have stocks that will last only three or four more days, including Uttar Pradesh, home to about 200 million people, as well as Bihar and West Bengal. In Maharashtra, the state health minister issued a dire warning on Wednesday, saying supplies would run out in three days unless replenished.
“We are having to tell people that since vaccine supplies have not arrived, they should go home,” Rajesh Tope told reporters. Major vaccination centres across Mumbai, which has recorded over 480,000 infections, were running out of doses Thursday, with the huge Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital stopping inoculations altogether.
At a government-run vaccination centre in the Mumbai neighbourhood of Dharavi, India’s largest slum, long queues formed as people waited to get a jab. Afrin Sultana Khan, in charge of the facility, warned it would only be able to vaccinate another 440 people — its daily average — before shutting shop.
“We are trying to see what we can do to save some stock for tomorrow,” the doctor told AFP. “Obviously we are very worried.” She added that she had no idea when new doses would arrive.
One district in the state of Andhra Pradesh ran out entirely on Tuesday and the whole of the south-eastern region of 55 million people may have no supplies left by Thursday, the Economic Times reported.