DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s president said Tehran has no immediate plans to quarantine cities during the new coronavirus outbreak rapidly spreading across the country, even as the Islamic Republic suffers the highest death toll outside of China, with 19 killed and 139 cases confirmed on Wednesday.
President Hassan Rouhani said it may take “one, two or three weeks” to get control of the virus, linked to most of the more than 200 confirmed cases across the Mideast. That comes after the top official in charge of Iran’s response to the coronavirus tested positive for the illness after trying to downplay the disease.
Rouhani sought to portray the virus crisis in terms of Iran’s tense relations with the United States.
“Coronavirus must not be turned into a weapon for our enemies to halt work and production in our country,” Rouhani said, according to a transcript posted to the Iranian presidency’s website.
Iranian state television reported Wednesday that 19 people have been killed by the new coronavirus and 139 cases confirmed in the country so far.
The announcement by a state TV anchor came as Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour urged Iranians to avoid “nonessential travel,” particularly to the hard-hit provinces of the country such as Gilan and Qom.
The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people globally, causing more than 2,700 deaths, mainly in China. The World Health Organization named the illness COVID-19.
Experts remain concerned that Iran is underreporting cases and deaths, given the rapid spread from Iran across the Persian Gulf. Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a hardline lawmaker in Iran, said Monday there had been 50 deaths in the city of Qom alone, which authorities denied.
Rouhani’s estimate of as much as three weeks to control the virus comes after officials repeatedly downplayed the virus. That’s sparked more concern among Iranians already angry over economic misery, the U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general and Iran’s accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner and then denying it for days. A recent parliamentary election saw the country’s lowest-ever recorded turnout.
A Health Ministry spokesman on Tuesday suggested it could take as long as until late April to control the virus. With the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, coming March 20, experts worry about the virus spreading even further across the country if not stopped by then.
“Containment of the COVID-19 virus within Iran will be a challenge because of Iran’s poor health infrastructure and traditional unwillingness to communicate freely and openly across all branches of government and between health institutions,” the Austin, Texas private intelligence firm Stratfor said.
That worry was echoed by analysts at the Eurasia Group.
“Tehran is likely significantly underestimating the risk posed by an outbreak of coronavirus to its citizens, economy and neighbors,” the analysts wrote. “Iran has a relatively robust public health system, although it has been weakened by U.S. sanctions. But a breakdown in national-level decision-making has severely hampered its ability contain the spread of the virus.”
Egyptian airport officials on Wednesday said the country’s national carrier, EgyptAir, has indefinitely extended the suspension of its flights to and from China, for the safety of passengers.