TEHRAN (Dispatches) — Iran on Sunday instituted mandatory mask-wearing as fears mount over newly spiking reported deaths from the coronavirus.
Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei publicized an image of himself in a mask in recent days, urging both public officials and the Islamic Republic’s 80 million people to wear them to stop the virus’s spread.
The new rules mark a turning point for Iran, which has struggled in trying to balance provincial lockdowns to stop the virus’s spread with the fears of stalling out an economy already struggling under U.S. sanctions after America’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
For a moment, it appeared the restrictions and public fear had worked, as reported new cases and deaths from the virus dropped to their lowest levels in May. But new cases soon rose again, with government officials saying better testing causes the numbers to spike even as they lifted restrictions to boost economic activity.
By mid-June, daily death tolls again routinely rose to triple digits. On June 30, Iran saw its highest single-day reported death toll of the pandemic with 162 killed.
"We see that some consider being infected with the virus bad and hide it,” a mask-wearing President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday, according to a transcript on the presidency’s website. "If someone knows that they have been infected with coronavirus, they have a religious and human duty to inform others about it.”
To fight the virus’s spread, the Iranian government issued the mask mandate. The new rules require those in Tehran’s subway, riding buses or indoors to wear them. Rouhani said those seeking "public services” also will be required to wear a mask.
Up until this point, wearing a mask in Iran had been encouraged but remained a personal choice. It follows the changing views and mixed messages of the scientific community over the usefulness of masks since the pandemic began.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April began urging Americans to cover their faces to stop the virus. In June, the World Health Organization changed its advice, recommending that people wear fabric masks if they could not maintain social distancing, if they were over age 60 or had underlying medical conditions. Those masks also help prevent the asymptomatic from spreading the virus as well.
Worldwide, rules for mask wearing vary by country. In Asia, masks are mandatory in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. In China, people commonly wear masks, which are required in certain areas. Japan urges people to wear masks in certain circumstances, but it’s not mandatory. And despite mandatory masks rules in India, the poor reuse masks for days while physical distancing remains rare.
In the Mideast, masks are mandatory in nations including Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, although enforcement varies.
In Iran, some people remain
unenthusiastic about wearing masks, although it hasn’t become a political statement like it has in the U.S.
The state-owned polling center ISPA published a June survey of 1,055 Tehran residents showing only 41% remain highly worried about the virus, down from 46% in May and 58% in April. The survey offered no margin of error.
That lack of concern by some people also can be seen in media reports suggesting most of the new coronavirus patients attended weddings, parties and funeral services with large groups of other people.
And in a nation where over half its people are under the age of 35, the virus hasn’t been an overwhelming concern for its youth — even as it can be fatal for older people and those with a preexisting condition. That was the feeling 23-year-old Hamid Sharifi had as he smoked a cigarette on a Tehran street.
"I think it’s not as dangerous as they said in the beginning,” said Sharifi, unmasked, before walking away into the crowds of the capital.
Samad Rostami, a 35-year-old shopkeeper, disagreed. "If we continue like this, our hospitals will be full and patients should lie on streets,” he said. "We are getting closer to the brink of catastrophe.”
Iranian health authorities on Sunday announced 163 new deaths due to the COVID-19 disease, the country’s highest official one-day toll since the outbreak began in February.
The new deaths bring the total toll in Iran to 11,571, Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said. "In the past 24 hours, 2,560 people have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of infections to 240,438,” Lari added.
Lari said almost a third of Iran’s 31 provinces were classed "red”, the highest category in the country’s virus risk ranking. Authorities say infections in the nine provinces, all on Iran’s borders, have yet to peak.
Iran is fighting the corornavirus amid the U.S. sanctions. On Saturday, Leila Joneidi, Iran’s presidential aide for legal affairs, said Tehran has recently filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice against the U.S. over the effects of sanctions on its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.