Iran, the crucible of coronavirus in the Middle East, smashed two grim records this week, reporting its largest number of deaths in a single 24 hours since the outbreak started in March, and the largest number of new infections.
Iranian health officials openly admit Iran is deep into its third, and biggest, wave of the disease, and evidence suggests an exhausted and impoverished country is struggling to cope as trust in government diminishes, sanctions weaken the economy and hospitals report overcrowded intensive care units.
Mohammad Talebpour, the director of Sina hospital, the oldest in Tehran, predicted that if Iranians did not collectively take action and the disease persisted for another 18 months, as many as 300,000 could die. He said a third of the medical staff at his hospital had at one point contracted the disease.
Covid-19 has so far killed 29,070 Iranians, according to widely challenged official statistics, including 254 on Wednesday alone, just down on the daily record set on 12 October of 272.
The number of people newly infected in the previous 24 hours was recorded as 4,108 on Wednesday, just down on the record of 4,392 on 8 October.
In an attempt to force reluctant Iranians to abide by social distancing rules, including the compulsory wearing of face masks in public, Hassan Rouhani’s government has introduced fines of up to $6.60, initially in Tehran.
Businesses face fines that could rise to $30 on the third offence. Since the monthly minimum wage is worth less than $60 after a sharp fall in the value of the currency, these fines are not trivial, but even so the health minister, Saeed Namaki, said he feared they would not be high enough to act as a deterrent.
Masks have been compulsory in indoor public spaces since July.
But Rouhani is an innately cautious centrist, nervous of a public backlash, and concerned by the state of the economy now predicted by the International Monetary Fund to contract by 5% this year. The government spokesman Ali Rabiei stressed on Tuesday that the fines were “a tool to achieve compliance, and not a goal in itself. The fine is a warning to exercise self-discipline”. He insisted all the income from the fines would go to the ministry of health to fight coronavirus.
No one knows if the fines will be rigorously imposed, or the punishment likely to be inflicted on those unable to pay. The police, the Basij paramilitary force and health inspectors will have powers to impose the fines, and offenders will have two weeks to make payment into a health ministry account,
But the much-criticised sight of Iranian police this week parading criminals on the back of trucks is a reminder, if needed, of the methods security services can deploy.
Iran has not hidden the disputes between officials over its handling of the crisis.
Mohammad Reza Zafarghandi, the state-appointed head of the Iranian Medical Association, has alleged that officials ignored warnings from health experts, and said that the medical staff in Iran were exhausted.
He blamed the severity of the crisis on “some of the non-expert decisions”, saying “some decisions were not made by experts, such as reopening schools with a requirement to attend or announcing protocols that people were not required to follow”.
The disease seems to be spreading most in the context of the family, but bakeries, schools and restaurants are also accused of frequently flouting the rules.
The crisis comes at a tumultuous time for Iran, as the US-imposed sanctions on 18 private sector banks, are reducing Iran’s access to humanitarian goods and medicine. The rial remains under pressure, and the Iranian central bank governor, Abdolnaser Hemmati, was in Iraq this week to try to gain access Iranian foreign exchange reserves stored in Iraq.
Rouhani, who is due to stand down next summer, is under growing criticism for his handling of the crisis. Critics, including many of those lining up to replace him in the elections next year, claim he has handed too much responsibility for controlling the outbreak to provincial authorities.