A woman holding flowers poses for a photo with a medical mask as a precaution against coronavirus on March 01, 2020 in Tehran, Iran. Photo: AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency

Rasht, Iran – When the Iranian government announced that schools and public offices would be closed from February 23 to curb the spread of coronavirus in Iran, many Tehran residents took precautions and stayed home.

But thousands of others flocked to the northern province of Guilan on the shores of the Caspian Sea, seeking a respite from the virus-hit capital, camping and fresh air.

That region has since been identified as a flashpoint in the health crisis, following only Tehran and the holy city of Qom for the highest number of cases and fatalities, with 218 confirmed cases and four deaths.

In late February, a 25-year-old nurse working on the coronavirus response team at Guilan province’s Milad Hospital, fainted on the job.

Narjes Khanalizadeh had not shown any noticeable symptoms earlier. She was transferred to the ICU to receive treatment, but passed away.

The Ministry of Health rejected that she died of coronavirus, but her colleagues have insisted it was the deadly new virus that took her life.

Dr Mehdi Shadnoush, the representative of Iran’s Minister of Health in Guilan, said on February 27 that 1,260 people suspected of carrying the virus have been identified across the province of 2.5 million people. More than 400 people have since been released, he said.

In the provincial capital Rasht, which is home to about 750,000 people, only one hospital has been designated for patients to consult in case they experience coronavirus symptoms, and need to be hospitalized under quarantine conditions.

Local sources tell Asia Times that the designated hospital, Razi, is old and underprepared.

Businessmen involved in importing and exporting medical equipment and medicine, meanwhile, complain that constraints caused by the US sanctions against the Islamic Republic are an obstacle to importing ICU beds, medical respiratory equipment, mechanical ventilators and non-invasive ventilators, as well as other paraphernalia urgently needed in these taxing days.

Guilan is now one of the “contaminated centers” of the country, he said, lamenting that some government officials have not yet realized the seriousness of the situation.

He insisted, however, that there was no shortage of “sanitary facilities” and testing kits in Guilan, and that shipments that arrived in Tehran were being transported to Guilan.

China connection

When the coronavirus outbreak surfaced in the Chinese province of Hubei and began proliferating across the world, many countries suspended flights coming from and going to China. But Iran was one of a handful of countries that allowed flights connecting its capital to several Chinese cities to continue.

From February 4 to February 22, the Iranian carrier Mahan Air flew at least 55 times to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen and back to Tehran.

The first instances of coronavirus infection were reported from the Iranian pilgrimage city of Qom. There are some accounts that 700 Chinese seminary students residing in Qom, who traveled back and forth to China since the beginning of this year, could be the source of contagion.

Iran is now one of the worst hit countries in the world, with the highest number of fatalities after China. According to Ministry of Health figures, the pandemic has claimed 92 lives in Iran as of March 4, and a total of 2,922 Iranians have been infected.

Social media users and journalists dispute the numbers, alleging that Iran’s health officials are either underestimating or concealing the real extent of the pathogen.

Given the global mortality rate of Covid-19 is about 2.3%, and 92 deaths have thus far been reported, as many as 4,000 people in Iran could reasonably have contracted the virus.

The scarcity of testing kits and the unavailability of relevant laboratory equipment, however, means many potential cases could be going undiagnosed and unreported.

Shirin Ebadi, the prominent Iranian lawyer and the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has called on Iran’s prosecutor general to issue an indictment against Mahan Air’s managing director over endangering the lives of Iranian people by refusing to halt flights to and from China while the Covid-19 outbreak was in full swing. 

Iranians watch the sunset along the shore of the Caspian Sea in the northern province of Mazandaran, bordering Guilan province, on July 8, 2019. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

‘Teaching is meaningless’

Iranian authorities initially worked to downplay the gravity of the outbreak while rehashing the usual conspiracy theories attributing the crisis to the United States.

President Hassan Rouhani said in a meeting of officials involved in dealing with the virus: “This is one of the plots and conspiracies of our enemies to bring the country to a closure by spreading fear in the society.”

He said on Tuesday, February 25, that by the beginning of the week on Saturday, February 29, all activities in the country should run normally.

“Coronavirus in Iran is being mainly treated as a security issue, rather than a healthcare issue,” said Vida Masoudzadeh, a 33-year-old teacher in Rasht.

“One of my relatives is a chief nurse in one of Rasht’s hospitals, and she has received orders not to report cases of patients who have tested positive for coronavirus, including those who die because of the disease,” she told Asia Times.

Meanwhile, she says pharmacies have been emptied of sanitary masks and disinfectants.

In Guilan, local residents complain about the dearth of hygiene products, the rising price of certain goods and insufficient measures to preclude the spread of the disease.

Nasrin Zahedi, a housewife in Rasht, said the price of food items that people have embarked on buying in large portions due to their health benefits have doubled and tripled in the market, and retailers are cashing in on the situation opportunistically.

“Garlic used to be sold for 100,000 rials per kilo (6 US cents) before. I just bought a kilo for 200,000 rials ($1.30). The price of citrus lemon has jumped from 160,000 rials ($1.10) to 350,000 rials per kilo ($2.40),” she said.

Streets, shopping centers and parks are empty, and many businesses such as restaurants and hairdressers have come to a standstill as they don’t have any customers, Zahedi told Asia Times.

The Rouhani administration, faced with the rapidly spreading virus, has been forced to retreat from its emphasis on normalcy, and has extended school cancellations, which are still in effect.

Kia Ekbatan, an administrative officer at one of Guilan’s universities, says at the moment, only one third of the university staff and employees attend their workplace and students are also unwilling to come to classes. Until now, no blanket decision has been made on university closures.

“Universities are the centers of congregation by young people from different provinces and cities and are susceptible to virally proliferate infectious diseases. Instructors and students are deeply concerned,” Ekbatan told Asia Times.

Under the circumstances, he said, “teaching is meaningless.” Most students, he added, want classes to be suspended until the end of the Nowruz holidays on April 7.

“It’s evident that the health officials of our province have not been prepared to fight such a serious infectious disease. The healthcare infrastructure is totally inadequate and the hospitals appear to lack the relevant protocols for fighting coronavirus,” he said.

Public anxiety is heightened, he said, by a “lack of trust in the authorities,” who in January attempted to cover up the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed 176 people.