Middle East

Iran’s leaders strike upbeat tone as virus toll climbs

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s leaders vowed to overcome the new coronavirus outbreak in upbeat messages marking the Persian New Year on Friday, even as the Health Ministry announced 149 more fatalities, bringing the country’s death toll to 1,433.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with nearly 20,000 confirmed cases, and has been widely criticized for its slow response.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, called the new year “the year of leaps in production” in Iran’s economy, which has been under heavy U.S. sanctions since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord.

President Hassan Rouhani also marked the new year, known as Nowruz, by promising a better economy. “We will put the coronavirus behind us soon with unity, with hard work and with cooperation,” he said.

Most people who come down with the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus experience only minor symptoms and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people showing no symptoms. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, particularly in sick or elderly patients.

More than 240,000 people have been infected worldwide. More than 10,000 have died, while more than 85,000 have recovered.

Rouhani has defended his government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections rapidly spread across the country.

He also sought to highlight what he viewed as the achievements of the past year, including the downing of a sophisticated U.S. drone and missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iran’s top general in Baghdad.

Rouhani assured Iranians that his administration will prioritize health in the coming year and said it had stockpiled basic supplies.

Nowruz is a major holiday in Iran, when shoppers typically pack into local markets and take extended vacations. This year most shops are closed, and those merchants who are still working can be seen warily accepting cash or debit cards from customers wearing face masks.

Khamenei issued a religious edict this week prohibiting all unnecessary travel and authorities have restricted travel between cities. After weeks of heavy criticism, authorities finally closed two major religious shrines in recent days.

Other countries in the region have imposed far stricter measures to contain the virus, including cancelling flights, sealing borders and forcing all non-essential businesses to close.

In neighboring Iraq, authorities struggled to keep pilgrims from marking the annual Shiite Muslim commemoration of the death of Imam Mousa al-Kazim despite a week-long curfew in the capital. Thousands of Iraqis typically make the journey on foot to the shrine of the imam in the Khazimiyah area of Baghdad.

Security forces have been stopping pilgrims in recent days, but more keep arriving. Late on Thursday, the doors of the shrine were closed and the electricity was switched off. Officials called on the faithful to perform the pilgrimage “remotely” to ensure their safety and the safety of others.

Iraq has been grappling with anti-government protests for months. The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected around 200 people and killed more than a dozen, and the fallout from cratered oil prices, threaten to plunge the country into a major crisis.

Saudi Arabia announced early Friday it would shut down domestic air travel, buses, taxis and trains for the next two weeks, beginning on Saturday morning. The monarchy has reported 274 confirmed cases, eight of whom recovered.

In a televised address late Thursday, King Salman said “we are living through a difficult phase of the world’s history.”

“However, we are completely certain that this phase will end and pass, despite its harshness and bitterness and its difficulties,” he said.

King Salman assured Saudis that the country had sufficient medical care and supplies to get through the crisis.

Pakistan meanwhile reported its third death from the coronavirus, a 77-year-old cancer patient, in its southern Sindh province. Pakistan has reported 452 confirmed cases, most linked to travel to neighboring Iran.

Pakistan closed its borders with Iran and Afghanistan weeks ago, but Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday asked authorities to allow trucks carrying food and other essential items to cross into landlocked Afghanistan, where infections are also on the rise.

Pakistan closed its border with India near Lahore on Thursday. It is also placing hundreds of returning religious pilgrims into quarantine.

Reporting by NASSER KARIMI; Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad; Fay Abuelgasim in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed.

Image: In this photo released on Friday March 20, 2020 by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, or Nowruz, in Tehran, Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani in separate new year messages vowed to overcome the new coronavirus and increase economic growth. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

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