By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI (Reuters) – As the new coronavirus spreads across Iran, the epicenter of the outbreak in the Middle East, so a feeling of anxiety grows among many Iranians, some of whom worry the clerical establishment has not got a firm grip on the illness.
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 escalating outbreak in Iran has killed 54 people and infected 978, according to the Health Ministry on Sunday.
Authorities have called on Iranians to avoid public places and stay at home, while schools, universities, cultural and sports centers have been temporarily closed across the country.
“We have not left the house for a week. Children have online classes. Only my husband leaves the house for shopping and for work,” said Samar, 38, in the city of Shiraz.
Trying to prevent panic, the government has not locked down Qom, a holy Shi’ite Muslim city identified by authorities as the center of contagion, but has imposed broad restrictions such as limitations on who is allowed in and out of the city.
Some religious hardliners, including clerics, have dismissed the idea of closing the holy site to prevent the spread of the virus, arguing that the shrine in Qom is “a place for healing”.
Videos on social media showed some people licking the doors and the burial mound inside the Masumeh shrine, defying advice by the Health Ministry to avoid touching or kissing any surfaces in the shrine, a common practice for pilgrims.
The head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, Mike Ryan, said on Feb. 27 that Iran may be dealing with an outbreak that is worse than yet understood.
Authorities announced Iran’s first infections and two deaths from the virus on Feb. 19. 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 contacted by Reuters 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.
A doctor in Qom, who also asked not to be named, told Reuters on Sunday that the illness had been circulating days before it was announced. “We had many patients with the same symptoms. But they were treated with flu medicine and sent back home.”
Some critics accused the clerical rulers of initially concealing the outbreak to secure a high participation in state-organized rallies in February. Some others suggested there was a cover-up to ensure a high turnout in Feb. 21 parliamentary polls. Government spokesman Ali Rabeie on Thursday rejected this accusation, saying the outbreak should not be politicized.
“It has spread across the country. How is it possible in 10 days? Obviously they concealed facts to go ahead with their own plans. They lied to us again,” said Fariba, 34, a high school teacher in the city of Tabriz.
Iranians’ confidence in their leaders has been damaged over bloody crackdowns of several protests since last year and the belated acknowledgement of the accidental shooting down in January of a Ukrainian airliner that killed all 176 aboard.
“If my children don’t die from this virus, they will die of hunger,” construction worker Ali Hosseini, 39, told Reuters from Qom. “Construction business is dead now and I am jobless.”
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Frances Kerry)