As one measure to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 900 Iranians, the government decided to free thousands of prisoners temporarily, including political ones.

Bank employees wear protective face masks and clothes, following the outbreak of coronavirus, during the work in Tehran. March 17, 2020.
Bank employees wear protective face masks and clothes, following the outbreak of coronavirus, during the work in Tehran. March 17, 2020. (Reuters)

Iran issued its most dire warning yet on Tuesday about the outbreak of the new coronavirus ravaging the country, suggesting “millions” could die in the country if the public keeps travelling and ignoring health guidance.

A state television journalist who also is a medical doctor gave the warning only hours after hard-line Shia faithful the previous night pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that had just been closed over fears of the virus. Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader issued a religious ruling prohibiting “unnecessary” travel in the country.

Roughly nine out of 10 of the over 18,000 cases of the new virus confirmed across the Middle East come from Iran, where authorities denied for days the risk the outbreak posed. Officials have now implemented new checks for people trying to leave major cities ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday, but have hesitated to quarantine the areas.

That's even as the death toll in Iran saw another 13 percent increase on Tuesday. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said the virus had killed 135 more people to raise the total to 988 amid over 16,000 cases. 

Most people infected by the new coronavirus experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

'All scenarios depend on public cooperation'

The Iranian state TV journalist, Dr Afruz Eslami, cited a study by Tehran's Sharif University of Technology, which offered three scenarios. 

If people begin to cooperate now, Iran will see 120,000 infections and 12,000 deaths before the outbreak is over, she said. 

If they offer medium cooperation, there will be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths, she said.

But if people fail to follow any guidance, it could collapse Iran's already-strained medical system, Eslami said. If the “medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be 4 million cases, and 3.5 million people will die,” she said.

Eslami did not elaborate on what metrics the study used, but even reporting it on Iran’s tightly-controlled state television represented a major change for a country whose officials had for days denied the severity of the crisis.

Underlining that urgency was the fatwa issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which prohibited “unnecessary” travel. It comes as the public ignored repeated warnings and pleas from security forces. Such a decree is a rare move by Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.

Late on Monday night, angry crowds stormed into the courtyards of Mashhad's Imam Reza shrine and Qom's Fatima Masumeh shrine.

Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That's worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran's Shia clergy to close them.

Earlier on Monday, the state TV had announced the shrines' closure, sparking the demonstrations.

“We are here to say that Tehran is damn wrong to do that!” one Shia cleric shouted at the shrine in Mashhad, according to online video. Others joined him in chanting: “The health minister is damn wrong to do that, the president is damn wrong to do that!”

Police later dispersed the crowds, state media reported.

Religious authorities and a prominent Qom seminary called the demonstration an “insult” to the shrine in a statement, urging the faithful to rely on “wisdom and patience” amid the closure.

Iran ups travel measures

State TV reported Iran had deployed teams to screen travellers leaving major cities in 13 provinces, including the capital, Tehran. But Iran has 31 provinces and authorities haven't taken the step to lock down the country like in the allied nations of Iraq and Lebanon.

The teams check travellers' temperatures and will send those with fevers to quarantine centres. 

Freeing 85,000 prisoners amid coronavirus

Iran has temporarily freed about 85,000 people from jail, including political prisoners, in response to the coronavirus epidemic, a judiciary spokesman said on Tuesday. 

"So far, some 85,000 prisoners have been released ... Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak," judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said.

Asked whether political prisoners were among those freed, he told a briefing aired by state television: "Yes, about 50 percent of them were security-related prisoners."

He did not say when those freed must return to jail.

Iran announced the release of 70,000 prisoners on March 9 in response to the virus, but none were political detainees.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, said then that he had asked Tehran to free all political prisoners temporarily from the country's overcrowded and disease-ridden jails to help contain the spread of the virus.

Rehman said only those serving sentences of less than five years had been freed, while prisoners charged with heavier sentences and those linked to participation in anti-government protests remained in jail.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies