Covid-19: Iran leaders strike upbeat tone as death toll climbs to 1,433

iran, coronavirus, covid19

Tehran - Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with nearly 20,000 confirmed cases.


Published: Fri 20 Mar 2020, 6:16 PM

Last updated: Fri 20 Mar 2020, 8:27 PM

Iran's leaders vowed to overcome the new coronavirus outbreak in upbeat messages marking the Persian New Year on Friday, even as the Health Ministry announced 149 more fatalities, bringing the country's death toll to 1,433.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with nearly 20,000 confirmed cases, and has been widely criticized for its slow response.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, called the new year "the year of leaps in production" in Iran's economy, which has been under heavy U.S. sanctions since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord.

President Hassan Rouhani also marked the new year, known as Nowruz, by promising a better economy. "We will put the coronavirus behind us soon with unity, with hard work and with cooperation," he said.

Most people who come down with the Covid-19 illness caused by the virus experience only minor symptoms and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people showing no symptoms. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, particularly in sick or elderly patients.

More than 240,000 people have been infected worldwide. More than 10,000 have died, while more than 85,000 have recovered.

Rouhani has 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.

Nowruz is a major holiday in Iran, when shoppers typically pack into local markets and take extended vacations. This year most shops are closed, and those merchants who are still working can be seen warily accepting cash or debit cards from customers wearing face masks.

Khamenei issued a religious edict this week prohibiting all unnecessary travel and authorities have restricted travel between cities. After weeks of heavy criticism, authorities finally closed two major religious shrines in recent days.

Other countries in the region have imposed far stricter measures to contain the virus, including cancelling flights, sealing borders and forcing all non-essential businesses to close.

Saudi Arabia announced early Friday it would shut down domestic air travel, buses, taxis and trains for the next two weeks, beginning on Saturday morning. The monarchy has reported 274 confirmed cases, eight of whom recovered.

In a televised address late Thursday, King Salman said "we are living through a difficult phase of the world's history."

"However, we are completely certain that this phase will end and pass, despite its harshness and bitterness and its difficulties," he said.

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