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Iran’s coronavirus death toll surpasses 20,000, the highest in the Middle East

Nurses tend to COVID-19 patients in Tehran hospital in June
Nurses tend to COVID-19 patients at the Shohadaye Tajrish Hospital in Tehran in June.
(Vahid Salemi / Associated Press)

Iran surpassed 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths Wednesday, the Health Ministry said, marking the highest coronavirus death toll for any Middle Eastern country so far in the pandemic.

The announcement came as the Islamic Republic, which has been struggling with both the region’s largest outbreak and highest number of fatalities, went ahead with university entrance exams for more than 1 million students. Iran is also preparing for mass religious commemorations later this month.

Iran suffered the region’s first major coronavirus outbreak, which saw top politicians, health officials and religious leaders stricken with the virus. It has since struggled to contain the virus’ spread across the nation of 80 million people, initially beating it back only to see it spike again beginning in June.

International experts remain suspicious of Iran’s official case counts. Even researchers in the Iranian parliament suggested in April that the death toll is probably nearly double the officially reported figures because of undercounting and because not everyone with respiratory problems has been tested for the virus.

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Iran reported its first coronavirus cases and deaths on the same day in February, yet it only saw its highest single-day spike in reported cases in June. The highest daily death toll was reported in July.

In February, before Iran reported its first cases, authorities for days denied that the coronavirus had reached the country. That allowed infections to spread as the nation marked the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution with mass demonstrations and then held a parliamentary election in which authorities desperately sought to boost turnout.

As authorities in Iran crack down on social media users, young people are mired not only in a pandemic but also a growing cultural battle.

On Wednesday, Iran reported more than 350,200 confirmed cases, with 20,125 deaths, Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said.

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Meanwhile, about 1.4 million Iranian students began taking their hours-long university entrance exams, which typically see large groups of applicants sitting in big testing centers. Each applicant usually remains in the testing center for nearly four hours.

Ali Reza Zali, who is leading the campaign against the pandemic in Tehran, said the capital still faced the country’s highest level of alert over the virus. Authorities would disinfect testing centers to “guarantee the health of the applicants,” he said.

Dozens of college applicants will have to take the exam from their hospital beds as they have already been sickened by the virus.

The coronavirus has brought mass graves, devastated families and a change to Islamic burial rituals in Iran. The pandemic is changing how Iranians live and die.

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Later this month, Iran will mark Ashura, which commemorates the 7th century death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, one of Shiite Islam’s most beloved saints.

Nine days before Ashura, daily mass processions are held in which men beat their backs or their chests with chains in a symbolic expression of penance for not being able to help Hussein before his martyrdom. Many distribute free food and soft drinks among mourners.

On Monday, a society of clerics said Ashura should take place “under any circumstances,” while demanding that participants follow health guidance measures. However, authorities complain that mask usage and other measures have remained lower than expected.

The Iranian Psychiatric Assn. wrote a letter to Health Minister Saeed Namaki demanding the “complete ban of any gatherings, especially communal mourning ceremonies,” when people mark Ashura. It cited near-daily COVID-19 death tolls of 200 in Iran.

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“We are on the verge of a much bigger disaster,” the association warned.

In reference to Ashoura, Iranian First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri tweeted that the coronavirus “has made mourning sites precarious.”

“This year we should stay at home to hold the mourning,” he said.

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Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates reported its highest daily caseload in over a month, saying Wednesday that its mass-testing program had found 435 new cases. So far, the federation of sheikdoms that is home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai has seen more than 65,000 cases, with 367 deaths.

That’s as Dubai has reopened for tourism and the Emirates plans to host the Indian Premier League beginning next month.


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