Coronavirus dampens Iran New Year, but many still travel

Tehran (AFP) –


Iran Friday marked a downbeat Persian New Year beset by the novel coronavirus, even as a rising death toll failed to dissuade millions from ignoring official advice and travelling for the holiday.

The Islamic republic is among the three countries hardest hit by the deadly virus -- its official death toll of 1,433 puts it behind only Italy and China.

In order to limit the virus' spread, authorities had for weeks been requesting that people avoid all travel during the 15 days of Nowruz, a holiday marking the Persian New Year, which usually sees almost all citizens take to the roads.

Those repeated pleas have fallen on deaf ears -- according to the Iranian Red Crescent, some three million people have left the 13 most virus-affected provinces by road since March 17.

All of Iran's 31 provinces have reported infections.

On Thursday, state television broadcast images of the occupants of hundreds of cars having their temperatures taken -- from a distance -- at a toll booth.

In a news conference on Friday, Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi declared that travellers infected with the disease had been "identified and sent back home".

He did not give any numbers, but the Red Crescent spoke of 2,400 such cases.

In addresses to the nation, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani pledged that the country would triumph over the virus, even as it grapples with US sanctions that Tehran has said are hampering its fight against the disease.

- 'A little late' -

But the number of fatalities continues to rise, with 149 more patients dying of the disease in the last 24 hours, according to Raisi.

The number of people infected, meanwhile, has hit nearly 20,000 since Iran announced its first cases -- and deaths -- on February 19.

However, another deputy health minister, Reza Malekzadeh, acknowledged days ago that the new virus had probably been present in the country since January.

"I think that we were a little late in announcing detection of the virus," he said on state TV.

However, Raisi defended Iran's decision not to resort to "coercive power", an overt reference to France and Italy, where authorities have enforced lockdowns.

"In the 13 provinces most affected by the disease, we are monitoring the outskirts of cities to identify and send" home those who are infected, he said.

But he acknowledged that this approach "only works to a certain extent".

Raisi said that the number of journeys undertaken inside Iran were "significantly lower" than for last year's New Year holiday.

But he also noted that southern routes were "still crowded" with vehicles.

- 'Dangerous situation' -

Mehdi, a resident of Shiraz, a tourism magnet in Iran's south, said "many travellers have come (here)... in recent days, probably believing that the heat will eliminate the virus".

"All the markets are closed, except for the food sector and pharmacies," he added.

"Hotels are also closed and camping in parks is forbidden," said the auto parts salesman, who AFP spoke to from Tehran by phone.

"I don't know where these travellers want to stay. In any case, they make the situation dangerous for everyone," he said.

Nowruz is normally a time spent with family.

Mehdi had to cancel plans to stay on tourist islands in the Gulf.

"I did not even get to see my parents" for the holiday, he lamented. "I could only give my congratulations by phone."

Numerous Iranians described this year's Nowruz as a "strange experience", devoid of joy.

One Twitter user "Bahar" said she did not want to break with tradition.

She laid a table with seven items all beginning with the letter "s" in the Persian alphabet that are associated with the festival -- young shoots of wheat, sweet dough derived from wheat, Bohemian olives, garlic, apple, sumac and vinegar, all representing renewal of life.

But for her, an eighth element beginning with "s" would be more welcome than all others this spring -- "salamati", which means "health".