Iran at breaking point as it fights third wave of coronavirus

a man that is standing in the street: Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Iran, the crucible of coronavirus in the Middle East, smashed two grim records this week, reporting its largest number of deaths in a single 24 hours since the outbreak started in March, and the largest number of new infections.

Iranian health officials openly admit Iran is deep into its third, and biggest, wave of the disease, and evidence suggests an exhausted and impoverished country is struggling to cope as trust in government diminishes, sanctions weaken the economy and hospitals report overcrowded intensive care units.

Mohammad Talebpour, the director of Sina hospital, the oldest in Tehran, predicted that if Iranians did not collectively take action and the disease persisted for another 18 months, as many as 300,000 could die. He said a third of the medical staff at his hospital had at one point contracted the disease.

a man holding a sign: A police officer wearing a face mask works on a street in Tehran, Iran.

© Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock
A police officer wearing a face mask works on a street in Tehran, Iran.

Covid-19 has so far killed 29,070 Iranians, according to widely challenged official statistics, including 254 on Wednesday alone, just down on the daily record set on 12 October of 272.

The number of people newly infected in the previous 24 hours was recorded as 4,108 on Wednesday, just down on the record of 4,392 on 8 October.

In an attempt to force reluctant Iranians to abide by social distancing rules, including the compulsory wearing of face masks in public, Hassan Rouhani’s government has introduced fines of up to $6.60, initially in Tehran.

Businesses face fines that could rise to $30 on the third offence. Since the monthly minimum wage is worth less than $60 after a sharp fall in the value of the currency, these fines are not trivial, but even so the health minister, Saeed Namaki, said he feared they would not be high enough to act as a deterrent.

Masks have been compulsory in indoor public spaces since July.

But Rouhani is an innately cautious centrist, nervous of a public backlash, and concerned by the state of the economy now predicted by the International Monetary Fund to contract by 5% this year. The government spokesman Ali Rabiei stressed on Tuesday that the fines were “a tool to achieve compliance, and not a goal in itself. The fine is a warning to exercise self-discipline”. He insisted all the income from the fines would go to the ministry of health to fight coronavirus.

No one knows if the fines will be rigorously imposed, or the punishment likely to be inflicted on those unable to pay. The police, the Basij paramilitary force and health inspectors will have powers to impose the fines, and offenders will have two weeks to make payment into a health ministry account,

But the much-criticised sight of Iranian police this week parading criminals on the back of trucks is a reminder, if needed, of the methods security services can deploy.

Iran has not hidden the disputes between officials over its handling of the crisis.

Mohammad Reza Zafarghandi,

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