Iran’s coronavirus death toll hits 20,000 as nation braces for more

The mortality figure ticked up to the new milestone just as Iranians prepare for mass religious ceremonies that many fear could further exacerbate the crisis.

al-monitor Iranian Shiite Muslims beat their chests as they take part in the Kharrah Mali ritual during the Ashura religious ceremony in the city of Khorramabad, southwest of Tehran, on Oct. 1, 2017. Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images.

Aug 19, 2020

Iran's death toll from the novel coronavirus had passed the 20,000 mark and confirmed infections passed 302,000, Tehran announced Wednesday, as the government’s pandemic policies continue to spark public criticism.

In a videoconference briefing, spokesperson for Iran’s Health Ministry Sima Sadat Laari said that transmission of the illness is at alarming levels in 26 out of 31 provinces. She also claimed virus has been found to be 10 times more potent than it was in the onset of the outbreak back in February.

A brief period of respite in May and early June had raised hopes among Iranians that the pandemic was about to be subdued. Their hope was shattered, however, in July and August, as the country started to grapple with a resurgence largely blamed on a hasty economic reopening.

And now the picture could turn even bleaker. On Aug. 21, Iran will enter a 10-day period of public mourning as the religious month of Muharram begins. The mass chest-beating rituals have for centuries shaped the identity of Shiite Islam and are a popular practice passionately observed by its followers. In consideration of the crowded nature of those ceremonies, Iran has been debating whether this year’s events should be suspended or modified over the past several weeks.

Some health experts and first responders battling the pandemic in overwhelmed hospitals have been warning that even a scaled-down version of those rituals will create new clusters and could undo hard-won progress. The group is sparring with powerful hard-liners and mask skeptics. Religious eulogists — some of whom are connected to the upper echelons of power and paid whopping sums for leading the rituals — argue that the spiritual atmosphere will offer a remedy to any disease, even one as dangerous as COVID-19.

Ultimately, the government of President Hassan Rouhani bowed to the pressure and decided to allow the ceremonies with a set of health protocols, including a ban on gatherings in closed venues. Those guidelines, nonetheless, do not impose any specific harsh measures against social-distancing violators.

On Aug. 19, officials also defied months of public pressure against contentious plans to hold the nationwide university entrance exams. The government has now started the stressful four-day marathon admission test that brings together some 1.4 million high school graduates, who will have to sit it for several hours at a time in closed corridors across the country.

Plans for a Sept. 5 reopening of schools have also prompted confusion and concern. Per a decision by the Ministry of Education, except for in areas categorized as “red zones,” students will have to resume physical class attendance. The plan has left many parents feeling stuck, with many arguing that they cannot compromise their children’s health for education.

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