A couple wearing protective face masks following a coronavirus outbreak walk in the Iranian city of Qom. (Reuters)

By Pouyan Khoshhal

February 26, 2021

Khuzestan province is still in a critical situation. Medics and provincial officials have petitioned the government for a two-week lockdown of the province, but they have not yet succeeded in convincing decision-makers that a total quarantine is desperately needed in this deprived part of Iran.

In the past two weeks, the number of outpatients across the country has also been rising and the health minister has confirmed the new variant of coronavirus identified in Britain has now reached all 31 provinces. Despite this, no further restrictions have been imposed and instead, the Ministry of Tourism has unveiled the idea of paid-for package tours around the country for Iranian New Year – as a means of combating coronavirus.

Ongoing Pleas for the Lockdown of Khuzestan Province

The surge in new infections in Khuzestan continues. All 11 Iranian cities currently on red alert are located in this province. Vehicles with out-of-town license plates cannot enter cities in Khuzestan and those with local license plates cannot leave either. Roads from the neighboring provinces of Ilam and Lorestan have been closed as well.

According to Karim Hosseini, chairman of the parliament’s Khuzestan Caucus, formal requests by the provincial governor and other provincial officials for a two-week lockdown of the province have been submitted to the National Coronavirus Taskforce. Earlier requests had also been made by local health officials and the presidents of major hospitals in the Khuzestani capital of Ahvaz, but the National Coronavirus Taskforce did not take any action in response.

Hospital officials in Ahvaz say all ICU wards in the city are now at capacity and few beds are available in other wards. “The shortage of hospitals beds is more severe in Ahvaz because other towns have fewer specialized facilities and patients are sent to Ahvaz,” said Dr. Farhad Soltani, vice president of Ahvaz Jondishapur University of Medical Sciences. “We have also a shortage of nurses in all Ahvaz hospitals.”

The number of patients in the red-rated cities of Abadan, Shadegan and Khorramshahr is increasing exponentially, reported Dr. Shokrollah Salmanzadeh, president of Abadan University of Medical Sciences. In the past 24 hours alone, 173 new Covid-19 patients were hospitalized in Abadan: 64 from Abadan itself, 44 from Khorramshahr and 65 from Shadegan.

Health Minister Blames Spread of Infection on the People

Two days ago Health Minister Saeed Namaki said his job better befitted the title “manager of a morgue” than health minister and grumbled: “This is not the way to run the country.” Today he clarified that he was angry not because of non-enforcement of travel restrictions, but because of the pilgrims traveling to holy places in Iraq.

In his latest statement on February 24, Namaki also sharply criticized the apparent disregard shown to health protocols in Khuzestan. “Unfortunately, in Shadegan, which was our first center of contagion, compliance with health protocols has dropped to zero,” he said. “It was totally clear to us that we were going to have a big, big crisis in Khuzestan in the near future.”

In the past two weeks the number of outpatients across the country has been rising and the coronavirus variant has reached all provinces, said Namaki. He also warned that infection with this variant can lead to Covid-19 requiring hospitalization within 72 hours, whereas it generally took Covid-19 contracted from the original virus seven to 10 days to become that severe, if at all. He attributed the new surge in Khuzestan “mostly” to the highly infectious variant.

Dr. Masoud Mardani, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Scientific Committee, warned against traveling during Nowruz: the holidays that mark the start of the new Iranian calendar year on March 21. “We foresee a definite increase in the number of coronavirus fatalities in the coming days because when cases increase so do hospitalizations and then fatalities,” he said.

New Year Travels Allowed

Despite all the warnings against new year travels, Iran’s Tourism Ministry announced that it has gained official permission for organizing limited intercity travel during the vacations. “We have obtained permission for limited Nowruz trips from the National Coronavirus Taskforce,” announced Vali Teymouri, a deputy tourism minister, on February 23. The aim is apparently to boost the flagging tourism industry, which has naturally been in slump since the coronavirus outbreak.

“We propose two travel models that can be implemented following health protocols in the country,” Teymouri said last week. “The first model for Iranian New Year proposes travel by means of package tours. Through package tours, travelers benefit from services provided by the tour and they will stay in authorized accommodation centers [and destinations] under the supervision of the Ministry of Tourism.”

In the second model, Teymouri added, people will not go on tours, but when traveling to their destination city they will stay in authorized accommodation centers under the supervision of the ministry, so as “to comply with all health protocols and maintain public health”. Iranians traditionally make hundreds of thousands of domestic trips during the New Year holidays, when most businesses and workplaces are closed, as are schools.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.