Iran braces for new coronavirus wave after surge in infections

An alarming flare-up in coronavirus cases in Iran has raised fresh fears of a broad COVID-19 resurgence, sparking official warnings of new restrictions and underlining the sanctions-battered country’s challenge of returning to post-virus normality.

Since June 1, the number of new COVID-19 infections has been hovering near or above 3,000, reaching on Thursday its highest-ever daily total: 3,574.

“It is a worrying sign,” Mansoureh Bagheri, the Iran Red Crescent Society’s director of international operations, told Al Jazeera.

While Bagheri acknowledged that a factor behind the jump was an increase in coronavirus testing, she noted that another reason was that “some don’t take it [the pandemic] seriously anymore” as fewer people seem to strictly obey physical distancing rules and avoid long-distance travel.

According to a poll cited last week by Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, public belief in physical distancing has dropped from 90 percent to 40 percent, while trust in stay-at-home orders has also slumped, from 86 percent to 32 percent.

Calling the findings “a disaster”, Harirchi has been just one of several government officials in recent days to rebuke the public for ignoring public health advice including maintaining physical distancing and wearing masks in public.

“People seem to think the coronavirus is over,” Health Minister Saeed Namaki said during a news conference on Tuesday. “The outbreak is not over yet, and at any moment it may come back stronger than before.”

A day later, it was time for President Hassan Rouhani to warn Iranians to “seriously take into consideration” the possibility of a resurgence of the disease that would force authorities “to bring back some of the restrictions” previously imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus – a move, he said, that would affect “the normal life of citizens and badly harm the economy”.

However, some argued that people’s behaviour was not to blame for the recent surge in infections.

“This is 100 percent due to wrong policies,” said Kamiar Alaei, an expert on Iran’s public health and president of the Institute for International Health and Education in Albany, New York.

“There is no coordination between the trend of infections and the government’s decision-making,” he added. The doctor explained that “a new peak is inevitable” every time restrictions are lifted without a steady and constant decrease in the number of infections for two weeks.

On May 12, mosques across the country were temporarily allowed to reopen for three days to celebrate the nights of Laylat al-Qadr for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Some took the chance to travel on that weekend. From May 25 to June 1, the number of hospitalisations rose from 338 to 652, and fatalities from 34 to 84, according to the health ministry.

While the epicentres of the Iranian outbreak were originally the capital, Tehran, and the central city of Qom, one of the so-called “red zones” currently is the western province of Khuzestan, where the number of people infected with COVID-19 is “steadily increasing”, according to officials.

“The increase in patients with coronavirus in Khuzestan shows that this province is still in a worrying situation,” Qasem Jan Babaei, also a deputy health minister, said on Thursday.

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