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COVID-19: Iranian Think Tank Says Infection Figures Likely Much Higher; Turkmen Soccer League Resumes

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An Iranian woman wearing a protective mask walks past mask graffiti in Tehran.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 138,000 with over 2 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Iran

The Research Center of Iran's parliament says the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic in the country is likely to be double the official numbers.

According to figures released by the Health Ministry on April 16, the death toll from the coronavirus has risen to 4,869, while the number of infections stands at 77,995, making Iran home to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.

The research arm of the Majlis, Iran's parliament, said in a footnote in a report issued this week and posted on its website that the actual number of deaths could be 0.8 times higher than the official tally and that the number of infections could be eight to 10 times higher than figures released by the Health Ministry.

"In order to have more compatibility between protocol and estimated statistics, it is necessary to increase laboratory and testing capabilities in the country," the report said.

"Needless to say that through increasing the capacities, diagnosis of disease will be more possible and spread of the disease will be more limited," it added.

A number of local officials as well as experts inside and outside the country in recent weeks have questioned COVID-19 figures released by Iran’s authorities, who keep a tight lid on the media, while suggesting that the real numbers are likely to be significantly higher.

Officials have claimed transparency while suggesting that the official tally is based on confirmed cases.

According to the Health Ministry, over 310,000 coronavirus tests have been conducted so far in Iran.

Deputy Health Minister Ali Reza Raisi on April 15 acknowledged that the "limits of testing" faced by his country meant it doesn't have accurate figures of all those infected.

Health officials have not commented on the new estimates.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on April 15 condemned the continued persecution of Iranian journalists and citizen-journalists who publish information about the coronavirus outbreak without official approval.

The Paris-based media-freedom watchdog said the latest victim of the crackdown was Mahmud Shariri, a former national radio and TV presenter who is now active on social media.

Shariri was arrested by Intelligence Ministry officials in Tehran on April 14 for "publishing false information about the coronavirus" after he posted a video seen by hundreds of thousands of people that referred to a coverup of information about the spread of the virus in early March.

"His criticism of the handling of the health crisis and the lockdown has clearly annoyed the authorities, who have not said where he is being held," RSF said.

The group said Hadi Maharani and Saide Ahmadi, two activists who run news channels in Tehran and the western Kurdistan Province, were arrested earlier in April for posting information about the epidemic.

Two other journalists from Golestan and Kermanshah provinces, Elaheh Ramezanpour and Sharam Safari, are being prosecuted for publishing allegedly false information about the epidemic but have not been detained, according to RSF.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is set to resume soccer matches with spectators this weekend, despite the novel coronavirus forcing lockdowns across the world.

The Turkmenistan Football Federation (FFT), which suspended its eight-team domestic league last month without providing a reason, said that one match will be played on April 19 between Ashgabat-based Altyn Asyr and its rival, Kopetdag.

Three more matches are planned the following day.

The FTT also said the country's youth league would reopen on April 20.

The authoritarian Central Asia state has not reported any official coronavirus infections as the authorities largely keep quiet about the risk to public health.

However, it has closed its borders and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported that checkpoints have been established in the country, limiting movement and testing people's temperature.

Police have also harassed those wearing face masks or talking about the pandemic, while using restrictions to force people to pay bribes.

In an article posted on its website, the Sports Ministry said the decision to open the domestic league "pleased the army of fans" and was welcomed by players.

"The continuation of the national football championships fully proves that Turkmenistan is a country of inspiration and health," it quoted national team player Didar Durdyev as saying.

Earlier this month, Turkmenistan held a series of public sporting events to mark World Health Day.

On April 15, state media reported that events surrounding Turkmen Horse Day on April 25 would continue as planned.

Georgia

The Georgian Orthodox Church and the government have reached an agreement that will allow parishioners to attend dusk-to-dawn Easter vigil services on the coming holiday weekend.

The agreement, announced on April 15, provides worshipers a way around a curfew and other restrictive measures that have been put into effect to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the agreement worshipers will be allowed to attend services in large cathedrals provided they maintain a distance of 2 meters. Those who attend small churches are to remain outside their church building.

The agreement also says parishioners should arrive for the services before 9 p.m. local time on April 18 and leave after 6 a.m. the following day.

“We made a joint decision with the church so that the law will not be violated and churches will not be shut down [during Easter service],” government spokesman Irakli Chikovani said at a press briefing.

The agreement was reached after two days of consultations between government officials, the prime minister, and the office of the patriarch.

Police officers will patrol church surroundings to enforce strict observance of all public health regulations, including physical distancing, on Easter Eve, Chikovani said.

Andria Jagmaidze, a spokesperson of the Georgian Orthodox Church, said that the church was taking precautionary measures to ensure that traditional Easter services are not suspended, while complying with all public health recommendations. He said nothing about the communal spoon used to distribute sacramental bread and wine to churchgoers.

A Georgian national health official warned after the announcement that Georgia’s coronavirus outbreak would become like Italy’s if parishioners attend the Easter service.

Italy has been badly hit by the coronavirus, suffering more than 21,000 deaths in the pandemic, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

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Easter celebrations on April 13 at the Vatican and at other Roman Catholic and Christian churches worldwide were stripped down and closed to the public in the face of the pandemic, which has infected more than 2 million people around the world and killed at least 134,000.

Emergency measures implemented in Georgia because of the health crisis include a ban on gatherings of more than three people in public, the curfew and a stay-at-home order for all citizens without special permit.

The country in the South Caucaus has reported 306 cases of infection by the virus and three deaths from COVID-19, the disease it causes, according to Johns Hopkins University database.

Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan

DUSHANBE – Tajik authorities in Dushanbe have cancelled public celebrations to mark a national holiday over the coronavirus pandemic, even though the government has not officially registered any coronavirus cases.

RFE/RL's Coronavirus Crisis Archive

Features and analysis, videos, and infographics explore how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the countries in our broadcast area.

Dushanbe’s city hall said on April 16 that all public events organized to mark the country's "Day of the Capital" were canceled "to prevent the coronavirus COVID-19 spread and protect the health" of residents.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are two Central Asian nations that have not officially registered any coronavirus cases. But experts are skeptical of the claims given the lack of transparency within their governments and a lack of independent media.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, the number of coronavirus cases reached 1,349, including four deaths, health authorities said on April 16.

In Kazakhstan, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reached 1,341, with 16 deaths.

In Kyrgyzstan, 466 cases have been officially recorded, including five deaths.

Belarus

Belarus has delayed the start of its women’s soccer league due to fears over the spread of the coronavirus, although the men’s season has continued.

The women’s league was due to start on April 16, but the Belarus Football Federation said a day earlier that it was now "suspended until further notice."

The federation said "several” female players had contact with "possible carriers" of the coronavirus.

Belarus is the only country in Europe still playing professional men’s soccer games with fans in the stands.

Cardboard Cutouts Join Belarusian Fans In Europe's Only Active Soccer League
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President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said that there is no need for strict measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the country, despite the growing number of confirmed cases and deaths.

Health officials in Belarus said they had recorded 4,204 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus as of April 16, with 40 deaths.

With reporting by Natela Zambakhidze and RFE/RL’s Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services, and AP
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