Tehran, Iran – Concerns are mounting about a resurgence of COVID-19 as the Iranian New Year approaches and many are travelling across the country.
Millions of Iranians usually travel locally, mostly to lush provinces to the north of the country, and visit family and loved ones during Nowruz – on Saturday – and the holidays after.
Authorities have urged people to limit travel and in-person visits, but even if a fraction of the usual Nowruz activity takes place, it could lead to another wave of infections across the country.
Moreover, on Tuesday night Iranians celebrated Charshanbe Suri, a festival of gatherings and fireworks to mark the last Wednesday before Nowruz. Videos posted on social media often showed few masks as people danced and jumped over fires.
Iran has already suffered three major waves in the 13 months since it first acknowledged the presence of the coronavirus, with more than 61,000 deaths and 1.76 million infections.
Before quickly becoming the worst-hit country by the pandemic in the Middle East, Iran reported its first cases by suddenly announcing in mid-February 2020 that two people were dead in the city of Qom, south of capital Tehran.
The announcement came just two days before parliamentary elections, and after weeks of speculations and denied reports of suspected COVID-19 patients.
Authorities were repeatedly accused of hiding the true extent of the pandemic during the first few months, charges they denied.
One deadly year with COVID
During the first wave, infection rates and deaths continued to climb until hitting a peak of more than 3,000 daily cases and 150 daily deaths in late March, during last year’s Nowruz holidays.
But since many people stayed at home during the holidays and businesses and most government offices were shut down, the curve was curbed to reach a low in mid-May.
As the months wore on and the shutdowns were gradually lifted, however, the virus grew again, this time stronger.
By the end of July, when the second wave had reached its peak, about 230 Iranians were losing their lives each day while more than 2,500 new cases were being registered across the country.
After more partial shutdowns and more adherence to public health guidelines, coronavirus cases came down, but about 100 people were still dying every day.
The situation only got worse from there to become increasingly dire in the next three months.
November was by far Iran’s deadliest month during the pandemic, as more than 13,000 Iranians fell victim to the virus and hundreds of thousands of new cases were identified.
Hospitals overflowed, intensive care units in worst-hit Tehran and across Iran worked at full capacity at all times, and the majority of Iran’s 32 provinces were classified “red” on a colour-coded scale denoting the severity of outbreaks.
Even as daily deaths reached 500 towards the end of November, health officials warned the true number could be twice as high.
Things have relatively cooled since with daily deaths limited to less than 100, but President Hassan Rouhani warned last month a fourth wave could be on the horizon depending on what happens during the next few weeks.
Lockdowns and US sanctions
Except during the first wave, when a lot was unknown about the coronavirus, Iran’s government has not imposed total lockdowns.
Starting from October, the government imposed a nation-wide mandatory mask rule, and defined fines for those who violate it, in addition to those who purposely hide their sickness and expose others.
Fines have also been set for people who flout inter-provincial travel bans and those who violate a 9pm to 3am ban on using personal vehicles in high-risk cities.
Health Minister Saeed Namaki said Wednesday “we are absolutely not in favour of travels” during the Nowruz holidays.
Nevertheless, only trips to cities classified “red” and “orange” using private vehicles have been officially prohibited, leaving hundreds of cities across the country free for travel.
Even at the height of the pandemic in November, the government only imposed a partial shutdown – for “red” cities – that included closing down all non-essential businesses, but allowed up to one-third of government employees to work at offices.
According to authorities, the reason is the government simply cannot afford to temporarily shut down the economy and pay people to stay inside.
The economy has been steadily deteriorating since former US President Donald Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and imposed harsh economic sanctions.
The pandemic only exacerbated Iran’s economic pain with the labour ministry saying it wiped out more than one million jobs in an already unstable employment market.
Even as officials say the economy is stabilising on the back of boosted local production, high inflation continues to pressure tens of millions of Iranians who cannot afford to not seek work.
Vaccines and the future
In addition to relief from sanctions, which Iranian officials have promised is close even as efforts to restore the nuclear deal have stalled, Iran looks to several vaccines to put an end to its economic pains and the pandemic.
Iran has said the US actively tried to hamper its efforts to buy COVID-19 vaccines by blocking money transfers, but Rouhani said on Wednesday that Iran managed to buy “more than 16 million doses” from COVAX, a global vaccine initiative under the World Health Organization.
While those vaccines, including 4.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab have yet to be delivered, Iran has so far received 1.16 million doses from Russia, China, India, and 100,000 from its joint vaccine with Cuba.
“But our hope does not lie in these imports, it lies in national production,” Namaki said on Tuesday on inoculating Iran’s population of more than 82 million people.
The country also started human trials on Tuesday of Fakhravac, its third local COVID-19 vaccine that is named after nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated in late November near Tehran in an attack blamed on Israel.
Iran’s most prominent candidate, called COVIran Barekat, started the second phase of its human trials on Monday, which is expected to soon be merged with the third phase.
An mRNA vaccine developed by the Razi Serum and Vaccine Institute is also in the works, having started its first phase of human trials earlier this month.
Namaki has said Iran will soon become “one of the most important and best vaccine producers in the world” as the country kickstarted a production line that is expected to churn out three million doses a month and boost production to up to 15 million a month before mid-year.