This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Friday Prayers in Tehran have been canceled over the coronavirus outbreak, state media reported, as the authorities confirmed that infected cases in the country spiked by more than 100 — among them Masoumeh Ebtekar, the vice president for women and family affairs.
Ebtekar is the second member of the Iranian government known to be infected, after Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirshi, originally tasked with containing the spread of the virus, tested positive for the COVID-19 on February 25.
All of the members of Ebtekar’s team will now undergo testing for the virus, state news agency IRNA reported.
Meanwhile, Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said on February 27 that the number of deaths linked to the coronavirus outbreak in Iran has increased by seven to 26 over the past 24 hours — the highest death toll outside of China, where the disease emerged in December.
A total of 245 people had tested positive for the virus — an increase of 106 on the previous day, Jahanpour told a news conference, adding that the large number of new cases came from more labs now testing for the virus.
In Geneva, UN health chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world can still stop the coronavirus from spiraling out of control if decisive action is taken immediately.
“We are at a decisive point,” Tedros said, adding that “this virus has pandemic potential.”
In Washington, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on February 27 the threat from coronavirus to the American public remains low, and the White House has begun discussions with leaders of the U.S. Congress on a supplemental spending bill to fight the disease.
More than 82,000 people in about 40 countries have been infected with the new coronavirus, mainly in China. COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, has killed more than 2,700 people globally. Late on February 27, the Netherlands reported the first confirmed case in the country, a man from the southern city of Tilburg who had recently traveled to Italy.
Iran has become the main hot spot of the virus in the Middle East, where more than 350 cases have now been reported. Many of those cases have been linked to travelers who had gone to the Islamic republic for religious visits.
As governments ramped up measures to battle a looming global pandemic, Iranian authorities announced domestic travel restrictions for people with confirmed or suspected infections, and placed curbs on access to major Shi’ite pilgrimage sites.
In affected areas, school closures will be extended for three days, and universities for another week starting from February 29, Health Minister Saeed Namaki told a news conference.
State TV later reported Friday Prayers in Tehran had been called off, and semiofficial news agencies quoted officials as saying the prayers would also be canceled in other cities.
Chinese citizens were banned from entering the country, according to state news agency IRNA.
A graphic published by IRNA showed that people were diagnosed with the disease in 20 of the country’s 31 provinces.
The most affected of those remained the central province home to the city of Qom, a popular place of religious study for Shi’a from across Iran and other countries.
Epidemiologists fear Iranian officials are underreporting the number of cases of the new virus.
In an interview with the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran on February 26, public-health expert Kamiar Alaei said Iranian authorities “don’t want to admit that they’re facing a major outbreak.”
The Iranian health-care system has the capacity and infrastructure to counter a coronavirus outbreak, but officials have not rapidly and effectively mobilized the country’s resources “due to political concerns,” according to Alaei, who has worked on HIV/AIDS prevention and other infectious diseases in Iran.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia on February 27 suspended visas for visits to Islam’s holiest sites for the umrah pilgrimage, which goes on all year round.
It was not clear if the annual hajj pilgrimage, which this year begins in July, will be affected.
Pakistan shut schools in Sindh and Balochistan provinces, suspended flights to and from Iran, and began to screen hundreds of people who had recently arrived from its neighbor, officials said.
The South Asian countries reported two cases of the infection on people who had recently traveled to Iran as part of groups of pilgrims from Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority.
The Iraqi government ordered the closure of schools and universities, cafes, cinemas, and other public spaces until March 7.
Travel to or from some of the worst affected countries, including China, Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Italy, were also banned.
Russia’s Federal Tourism Agency recommended national tour operators suspend tours to Iran, Italy, and South Korea until the outbreaks there are brought under control.
The move came after Moscow announced it would stop issuing visas for regular and transit travel for Iranian citizens.