TEHRAN (Dispatches) – Iranians will be ringing in the new Persian year of 1399 on Friday amid the coronavirus outbreak.
For the next 15 days or so, most Iranians are expected to restrict their travels and exercise self-quarantine.
The Iranian new year or Nowruz is traditionally a time of travel and visiting family and friends, but not this year.
Social distancing is what is being prescribed by officials, encouraging people to avoid close contact in order to slow the spread of the virus and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with a sudden deluge of patients.
Iran’s Health Minister Saeed Namaki said on Tuesday 14 million people have been screened for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms as part of a national mobilization plan to curb the disease.
"Out of the 14 million monitored for the coronavirus infection, some 73,435 had symptoms. After evaluations, 3,415 of them were referred to hospitals, out of whom 1,605 were hospitalized and the remainder were either discharged with prescriptions or sent to other centers,” he said.
The screening process, he added, helped the ministry reduce hospital referrals by diagnosing and suitably addressing the cases of those vulnerable to infection, the individuals carrying the virus without symptoms and the people in contact with the infected.
Namaki also expressed hope that the program would be extended to provide nationwide coverage in the coming days.
Iran has closed the holy shrines of the eighth Shia Imam in Mashhad and his sister in Qom and Shah Abdol-Azim in Tehran until further notice.
The country has temporarily freed about 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners in response to the coronavirus epidemic, a judiciary spokesman said on Tuesday.
The death toll in Iran from the coronavirus has reached 853 and a total of 14,991 people have been confirmed infected across the country.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhussein Esmaili said only those serving sentences of less than five years had been freed, while political prisoners and others charged with heavier sentences linked to their participation in riots remained in jail.
"Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak,” Esmaili said.
Iranian officials have rejected locking down cities but they have urged people to avoid traveling ahead of Persian new year on March 20 amid concerns over further spread of the virus.
Some citizens have ignored calls by the health authorities to stay at home, and shops and restaurants remained open in the country.
Officials have blamed U.S. sanctions, reimposed on Tehran since Washington quit Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with six powers, for hampering Tehran’s fight against the coronavirus.
Tehran has called on other countries to back its call for lifting of U.S. sanctions. Sources told Reuters on Monday that Washington was unlikely to ease sanctions on Iran despite an appeal from China that it do so because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, Iran said it had asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in emergency funding to combat the outbreak.
The United Arab Emirates has put
aside differences to lend support by sending two planes carrying 32 tonnes of medical supplies, including gloves and surgical masks.
Russia on Tuesday lashed out at the United States’ "inhuman” sanctions against Iran in the middle of its battle against the deadly coronavirus.
In a statement, Russia’s foreign ministry said that the U.S. sanctions create a strong barrier for Iran that has been hit heavily by the virus.
"Illegal unilateral U.S. sanctions, imposed since May 2018 as part of the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, are a powerful obstacle to effective fight against the infection,” it said.
"The reason for the many victims, caused by it, lies not only in the disease itself, but also in the fact that the U.S., purposefully hinder the resistance” to the coronavirus, the statement added.
"Millions of Iranian citizens were cut off from the possibility of purchasing necessary medical supplies, no matter how hard Washington tried to distort it. The anti-human policy of the U.S. provokes deep regret, alarm and serious concern,” it went on to say.