Fourteen months after the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, the officially-recorded Covid-19 death toll in the country has now passed 61,500. The true figure is likely to be two to three times higher.

The new Iranian calendar year starts tomorrow, March 21, and travelling to and from cities on “orange” and “red” alert has been banned. Violators will have to pay a fine of 1.5 million tomans, close to $365. But reports have already surfaced that police are simply fining these people and then allowing them to proceed to their destinations.

Khuzestan Still in Dire Straits

The coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom last year continues to spread like wildfire in Khuzestan province, which is now in a critical situation. Provincial officials report that the number of infections in Khuzestan is still on the rise and, according to Dr. Mohammad Alavi, president of Khuzestan Health Center, hospital Covid-19 wards are operating at capacity.

Eight cities in Khuzestan are currently on red alert and nine are classed as orange. As of March 18, around 1,700 Covid-19 patients were being treated in hospitals across the province, more than 400 of them in intensive care units.

Despite the dire situation in Khuzestan, health officials continue to complain that compliance with health protocols are not what they should be. Dr. Shokrollah Salmanzadeh, president of Abadan University of Medical Sciences, claimed thousands of people had participated in a mourning ceremony in the port city of Khorramshahr last week.

The Variant Spreads to Hormozgan

After weeks of warnings, as predicted the coronavirus variant has now spread from Khuzestan to the neighboring coastal province of Hormozgan: an infamously deprived zone, but also the destination of choice for many winter holidaymakers.

According to Dr. Hossein Farshidi, president of Hormozgan University of Medical Sciences, 50 to 60 percent of current Covid-19 patients in the port city of Bandar Abbas have been infected with the coronavirus variant. He said that the situation in the city was “worrisome” and in the past month, the number of Covid-19 cases in Hormozgan had surged again to 110. As of last week, the officially-recorded number of fatalities in the province stood at 1,039.

Dr. Farshidi reported that the situation on the islands of Kish and Qeshm was also critical because although the populations of these islands are low, a high proportion of the residents have been infected.

Warnings of Another Surge in Tehran

Infections with the new coronavirus variant has been rising in Tehran province as well. According to Dr. Nader Tavakoli, deputy director of Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, the number of Covid-19 inpatients in the province has increased by 18 percent in the past week. He blamed an increase in traffic and a decline in public adherence to social distancing rules.

As of Thursday, March 18, 2,414 Covid-19 patients were being treated in hospitals in Tehran province, 872 of them in ICUs, reported Dr. Alireza Zali, director of Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce. Dr. Zali also said the variant has now spread to 28 of 31 Iranian provinces. He warned that another surge of coronavirus infections in Tehran might well begin after Nowruz holiday travelers return home.

Travel Restrictions and Fears of a Fourth Wave

The new Iranian calendar year arrives on Sunday, March 21. It ushers in a 13-day holiday, Nowruz, during which Iranians usually visit each other and travel around the country. This year, of course, the situation is far from usual and authorities have been imploring people to abstain from traveling. The National Coronavirus Taskforce, however, was very late in announcing travel restrictions and lockdowns, leaving people confused about what arrangements to make.

On Wednesday, March 17, the presidents of universities of medical sciences across Iran issued a statement warning that traveling increases the likelihood of coronavirus variants spreading to new locations. Health Minister Saeed Namaki said on the same day: “We are absolutely not in favor of travel” during the Nowruz holidays.

Nevertheless, Alireza Raeesi, spokesman for the National Coronavirus Taskforce, announced that only the taskforce and the Interior Ministry’s Social and Security Committee have the authority to announce regulations concerning Nowruz travel.

Trips to cities classified as red and orange using private vehicles have been officially prohibited, but all other travel has not, leaving hundreds of cities across the country open to visitors. Even at the height of the pandemic in November, the government had only imposed a partial shutdown of “red” cities, with the authorities saying the government simply could not afford to temporarily halt the economy and financially support people to stay inside.

The Iranian economy has been steadily deteriorating ever since 2018, when former US President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew the US from the JCPOA and re-imposed sanctions.  The pandemic has only exacerbated Iran’s economic pains, with the Ministry of Labor recently declaring it has wiped more than one million jobs out of an already unstable employment market.

The latest alert classification of Iranian cities in terms of coronavirus infection rates was announced on March 15 and will remain in effect for a month, until the end of Nowruz. According to a statement by the National Coronavirus Taskforce, nine cities, eight of them in Khuzestan, are on red alert and 31 are orange. Travel to and from red and orange cities has been banned until April 2.

Official Coronavirus Statistics

According to the official statistics announced daily by the health ministry’s spokeswoman Dr. Sima Sadat Lari, a total of 565 patients lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending March 18. Monday, March 15, with 100 deaths, saw the highest number of fatalities recorded, and the next day witnessed the highest number of new cases for the week:

As of the end of the week, 3,866 Covid-19 patients were being treated in ICUs.

The Slow Pace of Vaccination Continues

According to the Health Ministry, Iran has so far imported 1.26 million doses of vaccine from Russia, China, India and Cuba: enough to vaccinate 630,000 people. But more than 50,000 doses of these are to be used in phase 3 of the clinical trials of the Cuban vaccine, which is being conducted simultaneously in Cuba and Iran.

Alireza Raeesi, spokesman for the National Coronavirus Taskforce, said Iran is due to receive 375,000 of the Bharat Biotech vaccine from India on Monday, March 29, and one million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine on March 27 via Covax, the World Health Organization’s initiative to provide countries around the world with a more equitable access to coronavirus vaccine.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has yet to be approved for use in Iran but Dr. Kianoush Jahanpour, spokesman for Iran’s Food and Drug Administration, announced that his agency is reviewing the issue and if it decides to give the vaccine an emergency permit it will be announced forthwith.

The slow pace of vaccinations, however, has not stopped the Islamic republic from boasting that its ability to make coronavirus vaccines exemplifies its self-sufficiency, with one top official comparing the feat to its ability to build missiles. "Just as we were forced to manufacture missiles ourselves, we have produced a coronavirus vaccine," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on March 15. He also accused western countries of “hoarding” three times the number of coronavirus vaccine doses they need.

Notwithstanding Zarif’s boast, Iran’s coronavirus vaccine candidates are still undergoing clinical trials and have not received official approval. The latest Iranian coronavirus vaccine to emerge – with scant details – is named Fakhra, after the country's late nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated near Tehran in November.

Fakhra was reportedly first unveiled on March 16, when its first clinical trial was launched in a ceremony attended by senior officials, including Health Minister Saeed Namaki. The minister pledged that Iran would soon become a "world leader" in Covid-19 vaccine production.

One of Fakhrizadeh's two sons, Hamed Fakhrizadeh, became the first volunteer to receive a test dose of Fakhra, which was produced by the Defense Ministry's Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. The department was previously headed by Fakhrizadeh, whose killing has been blamed on Israeli agents.

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