Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are to clear streets, shops and public places in the country within the next 24 hours, in a dramatic escalation of efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus.

The near-curfew follows growing exasperation among MPs that calls for Iranian citizens to stay at home had been widely ignored, as people continued to travel before the Nowruz new year holidays. Shops and offices have largely remained open.

Controversy over the health ministry’s authority within government and the haphazard way in which Iran’s provinces were implementing its advice has led to the change in tactics, and a clearer role for the army. The failure to impose a quarantine around the spiritual city of Qom, seen as the centre of the outbreak, has caused anger on social media.

There have also been complaints that the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has not been taking a sufficiently hands-on role in the crisis.

Official figures, disputed by foreign media and opponents of the regime, show the numbers of dead in Iran have climbed to 514 and the numbers infected to 11,634. Hospitals in some provinces have been overwhelmed by the demand for treatment.

Satellite images released this week showed what appeared to be mass graves in Qom, suggesting Iran’s coronavirus epidemic is more serious than authorities are admitting.

The pictures show the excavation of a new section in a cemetery on the northern fringe of the city in late February, and two long trenches dug by the end of the month.

The new steps, reflecting a transfer of power from political to military rulers, and ordered by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was announced by the armed forces commander-in-chief, Mohammad Baqeri. He said the intervention would start in the next 24 hours and last as long as a week. The volunteer Basij force will be involved in the programme, which will include phone calls, internet contact and house-to-house visits.

Baqeri said the army would be working alongside the health ministry, and not supplanting it, but pictures show the army meeting at a separate headquarters to discuss the new action plan. He urged people “to follow the recommendations and requests of the ministry of health and so help break this chain of transmission”, adding: “If the chain continues, disease control [measures] will be prolonged.”

As many as 1,000 fixed and mobile detection clinics were being set up as part of the plan. He said the army would step in alongside nurses to set up a corps of staff, including volunteers that could work alongside exhausted medical workers. Army factories were producing face masks and gloves, and 6,000 army hospital beds were being made available, he said.

The health ministry said it was setting up a national coronavirus mobilisation programme to increase early detection and had already piloted implementation of it in five provinces.

A spokesman claimed the pilot scheme had already reduced the scale of infections in Qom and Guilan provinces so that the total number of new cases for the first time was exceeded by the numbers recovering.

The aim was to identify patients at the first stage of the disease and prevent them from circulating in the community, as well as those associated with them, so cutting the transmission chain.

Despite Iran’s reputation as an authoritarian state in which human rights are ignored, the opening fortnight of its fight against coronavirus has been marked by citizens demanding the state take more draconian and consistent steps to bring the disease under control. An earlier proposal for a house-to-house detection system was criticised on the grounds that it might lead to the spread rather than the containment of the disease.

The crackdown came as the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, sparred with Khamenei on Twitter over claims the US had launched a biological war on Iran. Pompeo tweeted: “As Khamenei knows, the best biological defense is to tell the truth to the Iranian people about how the virus came from Wuhan, China. He [Khamenei] allowed Mahan Air’s flights to and from China, the centre of the epidemic, to continue, and imprisoned those who talked about it.”

Khamenei had tweeted the day before: “Evidence suggests this could be a biological attack. So the fight against the coronavirus can be left to the armed forces, and it can also be a biological defense combat exercise and increase our national authority and capability.”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, joined in the row, saying: “Instead of hypocritical compassion and disgusting boasting, stop economic and medical terrorism so that medicine and medical equipment reach the medical staff and people of Iran.”

“By the way, pay attention to the American people too!” the spokesman advised US officials.

Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for $5bn in aid to help combat the crisis but may well find the request is blocked by the US. Any hopes the crisis would lead to a temporary truce between Tehran and Washington appear to have been dashed by an Iraqi militia attack on a US army base in Iraq.

Source » theguardian