Iranians ignore requests to stay home for new year celebrations

Source: The Gurdian

Holiday destinations report thousands of cars despite advice to self-isolate as Covid-19 spreads

President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech on Noruz, the Iranian new year.
President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech on Noruz, the Iranian new year. Photograph: Iranian Presidency/AFP via Getty Images

Pleas by the Iranian government for citizens to stay at home at the start of the country’s new year have been widely ignored, with more than 1.2 million people taking to the roads, according to police.

Northern towns on the Caspian coast reported tens of thousands of cars trying to reach the main holiday destinations.

Latest figures published on Friday showed Iran had recorded 19,644 cases of infection and 1,433 deaths. There were 1,237 new infections in the past 24 hours and 149 new deaths. The number of new infections is a record high for a single day, and the number of deaths is the same as the day before.

Every layer of Iranian society – from clerical to army, as well as local government – had urged people to stay at home for the new year, a time when Iranians traditionally travel to see friends and family and celebrate the coming of spring.

Authorities in Mashhad – Iran’s second most populous city and the capital of Razavi Khorasan province in the north-west – said traffic was only 2% down on the previous year, despite calls by city councillors for people to stay away. Mohammad Reza Heydari, the city council chief, said 59,000 vehicles had entered the city in a single day, presaging a human calamity. The Iranian Red Crescent Society said 97,000 cars with 3 million passengers from 13 provinces had been checked and 2,400 had tested positive.

Alireza Raisi, the deputy health minister, said unless Iran got a grip on the crisis in the next two weeks, the country would be struggling with the disease for six months.

Iranian ministers appear to be wary of imposing compulsory France-style quarantines, despite the rising death toll, because the government does not have the resources to provide welfare payments to low-income workers. Five former health ministers had written to the health ministry urging them to take more radical steps.

The government has closed schools, universities and shrines, banned religious and cultural gatherings, but has not announced a ban on traffic. Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, continued his diplomatic drive to ease US sanctions and spoke to Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese foreign minister, after Japan contributed $23m (£19.5m) to help Iran.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of the World Health Organization, told a Lebanese broadcaster that Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, had agreed to ease some of the US sanctions covering banking to allow more medicines to reach Iran. But Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iranian affairs told reporters this week. “Our policy of maximum pressure on the regime continues,” he told reporters. “US sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran.”

Iran claims that American promises that medicines and medical equipment are exempt from sanctions are untrue. International banks, wary of US fines, will not permit the transfer of Iran’s financial resources stored in other countries into a Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA), a new humanitarian channel agreed between the Swiss government and the US on 27 February.

Despite the tensions between the US and Iran, Michael White, a US citizen jailed by the Iranians three years ago has been released on medical grounds, and is staying at the US embassy in Tehran. Switzerland acts as the diplomatic representative of the US to Tehran.

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