TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s supreme leader put the Islamic Republic on war footing Tuesday against the new coronavirus by ordering its armed forces to help health officials combat 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 for Iran’s upcoming arbor day, showing how concern about the virus reaches 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 mobilize 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus.
There are more than 2,530 cases of the new coronavirus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran in the region, most are linked to the Islamic Republic.
Experts worry Iran’s percentage of deaths to infections, around 3.3%, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be far greater than current figures show — and that the government may be underreporting the numbers.
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 also killed Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, as well as a recently elected member of parliament.
The sick include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, 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. 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 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 coronavirus.
The advocacy group NetBlocks linked the death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi to the disruption, though Iranian officials and its state media did not immediately acknowledge it. Authorities face increasing criticism from the Iranian public over the outbreak.
NetBlocks described the disruption to Farsi Wikipedia as nationwide, saying its technical testing suggests the online encyclopedia is being blocked by the same mechanism used to block Twitter and Facebook. Those social media websites have been banned since Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election and Green Movement protests.
Some Iranians said they couldn’t get to Wikipedia’s Farsi website since Monday night. Others said they could, including through the site’s mobile-friendly pages.
“The new restrictions come as Iran faces a growing crisis following the loss of senior state figures to coronavirus and a spate of criticism and misinformation have spread through social media,” NetBlocks said in its analysis.
The Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees the volunteer-edited encyclopedia, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. NetBlocks previously reported internet disruptions affecting Iran in recent days and users across the Islamic Republic have reported problems.
The disruption raises fears of Iran shutting off the internet entirely again, as it did for a week during economic protests in November. Iran has created its own “halal” net of government-approved websites. Halal is the Muslim equivalent of kosher.
Also Tuesday, the Middle East’s largest airline, Emirates, said it had to reduce or ground flights due to the new virus. Because of the slowdown, the government-owned carrier has asked employees to take paid or unpaid leave for up to a month at a time. Emirates’ operates out of Dubai, the world’s busiest for international travel.
“We have been tested before and Emirates will come out stronger,” Chief Operating Officer Adel Al-Redha said.
The world’s largest airline trade association, IATA, said Mideast carriers have already lost around $100 million in revenue due to a drop in ticket sales because of disruptions caused by the virus.