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High Anxiety in Iran as Coronavirus Disrupts Daily Life

People wearing protective masks shop at a pharmacy in the Iranian capital Tehran, Feb. 24, 2020.
People wearing protective masks shop at a pharmacy in the Iranian capital Tehran, Feb. 24, 2020.

Iran's deadly coronavirus outbreak is increasingly disrupting daily life, making it harder for anxious Iranians to find medical supplies and forcing a rare cancellation of prayers at a prominent shrine.

The Iranian health ministry reported an increase in the nation's coronavirus death toll to 12 on Monday, from 8 the day before. It also said the number of confirmed cases rose to 61 from 43 on Sunday.

Confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran:

Iranians' anxieties were on display in several videos filmed Monday in the country and sent to VOA Persian. VOA could not independently verify their authenticity.

In one clip from the capital, Tehran, a citizen journalist said he had just seen a suspected coronavirus patient being put into the back of an ambulance on Nejatollahi Street. "The situation is dreadful. They [officials] do not tell you anything," the speaker said.

Iran reported its first coronavirus cases and deaths on February 19. But the World Health Organization's program director for health emergencies, Michael Ryan, said at a Monday briefing in Geneva that the virus "may have been there for longer than we had previously suspected."

Iran's ratio of reported coronavirus deaths to cases, 12 to 61, is much higher than in other countries with confirmed cases, including China where the first outbreak of the virus appeared in December.

Some Iranians, suspicious of their government after it admitted to falsely denying responsibility for the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet last month, have used social media to accuse the government of trying to underreport or cover up the full extent of the number of cases in Iran.

Internationally-acclaimed Iranian global health scholar Kamiar Alaei, speaking to the Monday edition of VOA Persian's Straight Talk call-in show from New York state where he is based, said the fatality rate of the coronavirus in Iran is unlikely to be different than the 2% rate estimated in other countries with reported cases and outbreaks.

"When a virus is new, it does not have time to change," Alaei said. "The ambiguity (concerning Iran's ratio of virus deaths to reported cases) has two possible explanations: either the accurate statistics of infected patients have not been announced, or health officials have been slow to record the spread of the disease," he added.

There was more anxiety expressed in a video apparently filmed outside a health clinic in the central Iranian town of Shahrekord. The narrator said he had come to see if face masks and hand sanitizers could be obtained at the site to protect against the virus.

The man then zoomed into a sign at the clinic's gate that said, "Attention fellow citizens: There are no clinical supplies and products such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizers distributed at this center."

Similar videos of Iranians expressing frustration about what they said is their inability to obtain protective supplies from clinics and pharmacies also could be found on social media in recent days.

Daily life in the Shi'ite holy city of Qom, where about half of Iran's confirmed virus cases have been reported, suffered another blow Monday, with the city's main Fatima Masumeh Shrine closing its doors to prayer services.

In a video filmed at one of the shrine's entrances, a voice could be heard on a public address system saying: "In order to prevent the spread of respiratory and contagious diseases, all the mass prayers of the holy shrine and all the ceremonies in the sacred shrine will be suspended until further notice."

The message, broadcast by loudspeakers in the city, attributed the rare move to recommendations from Iranian health officials and Qom's provincial emergency task force.

This article originated in VOA's Persian Service. It was produced in collaboration with VOA's Extremism Watch Desk.