TEHRAN/BRUSSELS (Dispatches) -- Iran on Monday reported 337 deaths from the novel coronavirus in the previous 24 hours, the highest daily tally since February, pushing the death toll in the hardest-hit Middle Eastern country to 30,712.
Health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said that 4,251 new cases were identified in the past 24 hours, bringing the country’s total number of identified cases to 534,631.
To fight rising infections, the government has extended restrictions and closures in the capital Tehran, where schools, mosques, shops, restaurants and other public institutions have been closed since Oct. 3.
Iranian health officials have warned that daily deaths could hit 600 if Iranians failed to adhere to health protocols in public. Mask-wearing has became mandatory in public in Tehran, where the infection rate has been highest and violators would be fined.
Officials plan to impose the same restrictions in other large cities with high infection rates.
"The situation is very critical,” said Mino Mohraz, a member of the country’s coronavirus task force who said intensive care units in the capital are full. "There is not an empty bed for any new patient.”
On Wednesday, the Health Ministry imposed a travel ban to and from five major cities, including Tehran and the holy city of Mashhad, ahead of a religious holiday.
Iran’s health minister called on the police and Basij forces to help enforce virus rules.
Photo enforcement of the mask law has started at traffic lights. In the coming days, Tehran residents caught without masks, who now get off with a warning, may get a cash fine — although at just 500,000 rials, or $1.60, it remains symbolic.
"Our main goal is not to give tickets but to raise awareness,” said Ali Rabiei, the government spokesman.
Europe Tightens Curbs
A raft of European nations including Italy and Belgium took desperate new measures on Monday to try to combat a second wave of coronavirus infections as the worldwide caseload topped 40 million.
The latest global milestone came just hours after the number of people who have died from COVID-19 passed 250,000 in Europe, according to an AFP tally, as the pandemic rampages across much of the continent.
Many governments are seeking to avoid the full-on lockdowns imposed in the first wave as they battle to keep their economies going but in some countries, people are chafing against the new restrictions on daily life.
In Belgium, where hospitalizations rose 100% in just the last week, bars and restaurants were closed on Monday for a month and a curfew will be reinforced overnight.
"Managers, chefs, dish-washers, everyone is suffering,” Angelo Bussi said as he put the key in the lock of his Brussels restaurant late Sunday.
"We don’t feel like anyone cares. It breaks my heart,” he told AFP before shrugging and walking off into
the night. "Ah, well there we are, see you in a month.”
Belgium’s second major lockdown comes after Prime Minister Alexander de Croo warned the situation was "much worse” than in March when there was an almost complete confinement.
Italy, the initial epicenter of Europe’s outbreak, also announced fresh curbs including earlier closures for bars and restaurants and a push to increase working from home.
"We cannot waste time,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, also flagging bans on amateur team sports and local festivals.
In Poland, where around half the country is now designated as a coronavirus "red zone”, the government said the national stadium would double as a field hospital to help ease the strain on overwhelmed health care facilities.
Switzerland meanwhile made mask-wearing compulsory in indoor public spaces and put limits on public gatherings after infections doubled over the last week.
"The second wave is here, earlier and stronger than we expected, but we are prepared,” Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said.
France imposed its own overnight curfew from the weekend in nine cities including Paris, affecting 20 million people, with a record 32,400 new infections reported on Saturday.
Saudi Arabia eased more of its own virus restrictions when it allowed worshippers to re-enter Islam’s holiest site for prayers on Sunday for the first time since March.
The Grand Mosque in Mecca is the site of the annual hajj pilgrimage that draws Muslims from around the world but only 10,000 people were allowed to take part this year, a far cry from the 2.5 million in 2019.
Numerous political figures have contracted the virus in recent days, including veteran chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is in a "critical” condition and in a medically induced coma, the Jerusalem Al-Quds hospital treating him said.
A vaccine remains the great hope to end the cycle of imposing and lifting lockdowns across the world, and the United Nations said Monday it would stockpile a billion syringes worldwide by the end of 2021 for that purpose.
"Vaccinating the world against COVID-19 will be one of the largest mass undertakings in human history, and we will need to move as quickly as the vaccines can be produced,” Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said.