Tehran, Iran – Ceremonies to mark the holy Islamic month of Muharram have begun across Iran, even as officials warn that the COVID-19 pandemic is currently claiming a victim every two minutes.
The health ministry on Wednesday said 536 more Iranians died over the past 24 hours as it recorded 42,541 cases amid a fifth major wave of infections, this time defined by the highly contagious Delta variant. Since February 2020, more than 95,000 people have died from the disease.
But videos from several provinces, including Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, on Tuesday showed observers packed together in closed and open spaces without masks.
Health protocols that still allow some Muharram gatherings to go forward have faced criticism online and in local media. The guidelines allow gatherings in closed spaces, provided they are held at 25-percent capacity and respect physical distancing.
In Tehran, there are numerous mourning ceremonies each day while businesses remain open and public transport is seeing heavy traffic.
The capital currently accounts for roughly a quarter of all deaths across the country.
Iran’s colour-coded map denoting the severity of outbreaks is once again a sea of red as most of the 31 provinces are at the highest level of alarm.
Health officials have warned that public adherence to health protocols, such as wearing face masks and observing physical distancing, is low, at below 40 percent.
Many provinces have reported that hospitals are at, or near, maximum capacity. In several facilities, all hospital beds are dedicated to coronavirus patients while people with other conditions are being refused.
Images have shown long queues at pharmacies as people rush to procure medicine, some of which are in short supply and very expensive.
The country is importing large numbers of intravenous line bags after shortages earlier this month.
Deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi said on Tuesday that virus deaths are expected to rise for more than a month, saying public gatherings could extend that time even further.
But despite the alarming situation, the national anti-coronavirus task force, now chaired by President Ebrahim Raisi who was sworn in on Thursday, has so far rejected health minister Saeed Namaki’s request for a two-week lockdown enforced by the armed forces.
The minister had warned in a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week that if quick action is not taken, the country’s strained health system could collapse as many health workers are falling ill due to stress.
Khamenei left it to the new president to make the decision.