Iran Reports Largest Spike in Coronavirus as 147 More Die

March 18, 2020 Updated: March 18, 2020

Iran reported its single largest increase in deaths from the new coronavirus on March 18 as another 147 people died, raising the country’s overall death toll to 1,135.

The nearly 15 percent spike in deaths—amid a total of 17,361 confirmed cases in Iran—marks the largest 24-hour increase in fatalities since officials first acknowledged cases of the virus in Iran in mid-February.

Still, even as the number of cases continues to grow each day, food markets were still packed with shoppers on March 18 and highways were crowded with traffic as families traveled between cities ahead of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, on March 20.

Iran’s deputy health minister, Alireza Raisi, urged the public to avoid travel and crowded places. In a statement on state TV, Raisi told Iranians the coming period represented two “golden weeks” to try to curb the virus from spreading further.

He criticized people for not adhering to the warnings to stay home, saying the virus is very serious. “This is not a good situation at all,” he said.

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People, some wearing protective face masks, grocers stalls displaying produce at the Tajrish Bazaar in Iran’s capital Tehran on March 12, 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on March 18 defended his government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections rapidly spread across the country.

In a speech to his Cabinet, Rouhani said the government was “straightforward” with the nation, saying it announced the outbreak as soon as it learned about it on Feb. 19.

“We spoke to people in a honest way. We had no delay,” he added.

The government has come under heavy criticism for what has been seen as a slow and inadequate response. For weeks, government officials implored clerics to shut down crowded holy shrines to stymie the spread of the virus. The government finally closed the shrines this week.

“It was difficult of course to shut down mosques and holy sites, but we did it. It was a religious duty to do it,” Rouhani said.

Iran also announced it would close mosques for communal Friday prayers for a third consecutive week. Other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have also canceled Friday prayers in mosques.

The new coronavirus has infected hundreds of thousands of people around the world and killed thousands. For most people, it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

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A computer image shows a model structurally representative of a beta coronavirus, the type of virus linked to COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus linked to the Wuhan outbreak, shared with Reuters on Feb. 18, 2020. (NEXU Science Communication/via Reuters)

World Health Organization director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, Ahmed Al-Mandhari, told reporters in Cairo via a virtual press conference that the many travel restrictions, imposed by various countries, are hurting efforts to combat the virus. They delay both the deployment of public health experts to countries that need support and the delivery of urgently needed medical supplies, he said.

In Israel, meanwhile, the Health Ministry said 90 more people had tested positive, bringing the country’s overall number to 427, a day after authorities issued a new series of guidelines that put Israelis in near-shutdown mode. Israel has ordered tens of thousands into home quarantine, turned hotels into hospitals, and has set up drive-thru testing centers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of catastrophic consequences if people don’t follow safety instructions. “This is a huge crisis. We are only at the start of the campaign,” he said in a televised address on March 17.

Most controversially, the Israeli government has instructed the Shin Bet internal security service to deploy the agency’s phone surveillance technology to help curb the spread of the virus in Israel by tracking the moves of the infected.

In Iraq, a week-long curfew went into effect in Baghdad. Only pedestrians were allowed on the streets to buy necessary foodstuffs and medicine. Armed Iraqi police were seen patrolling the city and setting up roadblocks.

Still, some pilgrims in Iraq defied the curfew to observe the annual Shiite Muslim commemoration of the death of Imam Mousa al-Kazim. Thousands typically make the journey on foot to the revered imam’s shrine in the Khadimiya area outside of Baghdad. Several men, women, and children walked solemnly down Baghdad’s Saadoun Street on March 18, determined to complete the journey to the shrine. Police stationed nearby didn’t intervene to stop them.

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Although many shrines are closed due to the new coronavirus, Shiite pilgrims make their way to the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, a key Shiite saint, during preparations for the annual commemoration of his death, in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 18, 2020. (Hadi Mizban/AP Photo)

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the hub of Iraq’s anti-government protest movement, issued a collective statement that they were suspending protest activities to help stop the spread of the virus. Iraq has had 11 deaths among 154 confirmed cases of the virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

In Egypt, coffee shops and restaurants were shuttered on March 18. Plain-clothed security forces urged people to go home in Cairo, a city of more than 20 million.

“I am financially ruined, how can I earn my living now,” said Mohammed Gamal, a worker in a coffee shop that was shut down by authorities.

Egypt, which has reported nearly 200 cases and six deaths from the virus, has suspended flights, closed schools, quarantined more than 300 families in a Nile Delta village, and imposed a lockdown in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada.

As global stock markets remain volatile, the United Arab Emirates’ Securities and Commodities Authority announced that local exchanges would only be able to fluctuate 5 percent, rather than 10 percent, before trading is suspended.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies may hold an extraordinary virtual meeting next week about advancing a coordinated response to the pandemic. Saudi Arabia, which currently leads the G-20 presidency, said it is communicating with countries to convene the virtual meeting of leaders.

In Pakistan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who this week visited China along with the country’s President Arif Alvi, said he is protectively quarantining himself on his physician’s advice.

By Nasser Karimi and Aya Batrawy