Covid-19 infects top officials and hundreds more in Iran

The strain of coronavirus known as Covid-19 has killed 34 and infected 388 people in Iran, the country’s Health Ministry has confirmed.

Iran’s Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said the country now has 15 laboratories testing samples and warned that the number of cases is likely to increase.

The head of Iran’s task force to stop the virus was seen coughing, sweating and wheezing across televised interviews before acknowledging he was infected. Then days later, a visibly pale official sat away from President Hassan Rouhani and other top leaders before she too reportedly came down with the virus.

Pedestrians wear masks in Tehran
Iranians are taking extra caution to avoid getting infected (AP/Vahid Salemi)

In the capital Tehran and other cities, authorities cancelled Friday prayer services to limit crowds. Radio Tehran, which typically carries the prayer, played only traditional Iranian music and universities are to remain closed for another week.

Meanwhile, Iranian state media made a point to show the government is addressing the crisis. In the city of Mashhad, at the Imam Reza Shrine, cleaners in hazmat suits sprayed disinfectant across surfaces that the worshippers kiss and touch as workers installed hand sanitisers. Trucks from Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard sprayed down streets and pavements in the holy city of Qom, the epicentre of the country’s outbreak.

But experts, including at the World Health Organisation, worry the Islamic Republic may be under-reporting the number of cases in the country.

Iran denied for days that the virus was in the country ahead of a parliamentary election that saw the lowest voter turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

By doing so, Iran is likely to have allowed the virus to spread rapidly, reaching even into the upper echelons of its power structure as it infected four MPs, top clerics and other officials.

On Thursday, word spread that one of Iran’s many vice presidents, Masoumeh Ebtekar, had contracted the virus. Ms Ebtekar, 59, is better known as “Sister Mary”, the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis.

Masoumeh Ebtekar, a vice president in the Islamic Republic
Masoumeh Ebtekar, a vice president in the Islamic Republic, reportedly has the virus (AP/Vahid Salemi, File)

Ms Ebtekar attended a cabinet meeting chaired by 71-year-old Mr Rouhani on Wednesday. Other top officials, mostly in their late 50s and 60s, sat just feet away from her. Mr Jahanpour said the average age of those killed by the virus and the illness it brings is over 60.

State media has not said what measures those attending the meeting with Ms Ebtekar were now taking. However, the concern about the virus’ spread among Iran’s elite has reached into Austria, where foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg tested negative for it after a recent trip to Tehran.

Iraj Harirchi, who led Iran’s coronavirus task force, sweated at the podium during a news conference and then later coughed all over the set of a state TV interview programme.

Soon afterwards, Mr Harirchi acknowledged testing positive for the virus.