An Iranian medic treats a patient infected with the COVID-19 virus at a hospital in Tehran. Mizan News Agency/AFP
Iran's supreme leader put the Islamic Republic on war footing Tuesday against the new coronavirus by ordering its armed forces to assist health officials in combating the outbreak — the deadliest outside of China — that authorities say has killed 77 people.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's decision was announced after state media broadcast images of the 80-year-old leader planting a tree wearing disposable gloves ahead of Iran's upcoming arbor day, showing how concern about the virus now reaches up to the top of the country's Shiite theocracy.
"Whatever helps public health and prevents the spread of the disease is good and what helps to spread it is sin,” Khamenei said.
After downplaying the coronavirus as recently as last week, Iranian authorities said Tuesday they had plans to potentially mobilize 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus.
There are now over 2,530 cases of the new coronavirus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran in the region, most link back to the Islamic Republic.
Yet experts worry Iran’s percentage of deaths to infections, now around 3.3%, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be far greater than current figures show.
Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi on Monday makes him the highest-ranking official within Iran’s leadership to be killed by the virus. State media referred to him as a confidant of Khamenei.
The virus earlier killed Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, as well as a recently elected member of parliament.
Those sick include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as "Sister Mary,” the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported. Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.
An activist group also said Tuesday that Wikipedia's Farsi-language website appeared to be disrupted in Iran after a close confidant to the supreme leader died of the new coronavirus.
Iran had temporarily released around 100,000 prisoners as part of measures taken to contain the pandemic, leaving an estimated 50,000 people behind bars, including violent offenders and so-called "security cases,” often dual nationals and others with Western ties.
"Reports by more than 56 laboratories indicated that we have had 1,178 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in the past 24 hours," health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said in a televised news conference.
Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 966 more cases had been confirmed over the past 24 hours and 20,610 people were now known to have been infected in Iran.
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