Iran has been accused of failing to clamp down on coronavirus contamination after alarming videos of worshippers licking a shrine emerged online. Clips shared on social media show people licking the doors and burial mound inside the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom, defying token advice by the health ministry.
Worshippers in the videos brazenly state they ‘don’t care what happens’, even if they catch or spread the infection which has killed at least 54 in the country. Iran’s hardline clerical establishment has refused to shut down Qom despite the holy city suffering the brunt of the outbreak and pilgrims spreading the virus across the Middle East.
The country is battling medical shortages which are worsened by U.S. sanctions, with masks and testing kits in short supply. There are also fears that Iran is covering up the true scale of the crisis, with official figures showing a suspiciously high death rate – suggesting there may be far more infections than the regime is willing to admit.
One person who kisses the shrine in the holy Shi’ite Muslim city demands people ‘stop scaring people [about] coronavirus. A child is even hailed for licking the doors. Journalist Masih Alinejad, who tweeted the worrying clips, said that by keeping the religious sites open, the regime was ‘endangering the lives of Iranians and the world’.
Iran has the second highest death toll outside mainland China, and ministers in Tehran have stepped up efforts to prevent the spread, which has infected at least 978 people.
Every day trucks filled with disinfectants spray down streets, shrines, public parks, trash bins, public toilets and markets in Qom, Tehran and other areas that have had cases of infection.
State TV showed workers wiping down metro and bus stations.
‘The smell of disinfectants has become my nightmare,’ said retired teacher Ziba Rezaie, 62, from Qom. ‘The city smells like a cemetery, a morgue.’
The head of the World Health Organisation’s emergencies programme, Mike Ryan, said Iran may be dealing with an outbreak that is worse than yet understood.
Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, have repeatedly dismissed concerns raised by many Iranians over the handling of the outbreak, saying all the necessary measures to overcome the crisis have been taken.
Some doctors and nurses said hospitals in Tehran, Qom and Rasht city were overloaded.
‘Hospitals are full of infected people. We hear about hundreds of deaths,’ said a doctor in Tehran, who asked not to be named. ‘We need more hospitals. The death toll will rise.’
The Health Ministry has ordered hospitals to admit only infected people and those patients who need immediate care. Dozens of military-run hospitals have been allocated to treat the infected people.
Iran’s claims to have the virus under control lost further credibility last week when the deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, was taken into quarantine.
Just a day earlier, the minister had looked unwell and sweated heavily at a press conference where he insisted that the outbreak was not as bad as feared.
In his subsequent video, Haririchi confirmed he had been infected with the virus and had quarantined himself at home.
Further fears were raised when a lawmaker claimed that 50 people had died from the illness in the city of Qom alone. Harirchi, the health minister who has since been diagnosed with the virus, denied this.
Farahani said the 50 deaths in Qom date back to February 13, whereas Iran first officially reported cases of the virus on February 19.
He also claimed that 250 people had been quarantined in the city, which is around 75 miles south of Tehran.
‘None of the nurses have access to proper protective gears,’ Farahani said, adding that some health care specialists had left the city.
‘So far, I have not seen any particular action to confront corona by the administration.’
Iran faced anger from its own citizens over an attempted cover-up just last month, after claiming falsely that a passenger jet with dozens of Iranians on board had crashed by accident.
The plane was actually shot down by Iranian Revolutionary Guards at the height of Tehran’s stand-off with Washington after the death of Qassem Soleimani.