Iranians are marking a somber Norouz amid one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks that has officially killed over 1,400 and spread to all of the country’s 31 provinces.
Norouz, which marks the beginning of the Iranian new year, is the most important and joyous event in the country when families come together and exchange gifts.
But this year it’s been overshadowed by the outbreak, which has officially infected nearly 20,000 people in the country, though actual figures are believed to be significantly higher.
It also comes as many Iranians struggle to make ends meet due to the outbreak that is ravaging businesses. Iran is also desperately trying to deal with crippling U.S. sanctions that have contributed to a devaluation of the national currency and inflation.
There is also a general uptick in people's mistrust in their leaders who are desperately scrambling to respond to the crisis and criticism that they were too late in responding to the pandemic.
Iranian officials have shut down schools and public places but refrained from announcing a complete lockdown of any cities, including the epicenter, the Shi'ite holy city of Qom.
Officials have said that U.S. sanctions, imposed after U.S. President Donald Trump exited the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018, have hampered their ability to contain the outbreak, the third worst in the world, after China and Italy.
Washington has been upfront in blaming the Iranian government for the intensity of the coronavirus's spread in Iran.
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"Instead of focusing on the needs of the Iranian people and accepting genuine offers of support, senior Iranians lied about the Wuhan virus (coronavirus) outbreak for weeks," said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 17. "The Iranian leadership is trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governance [by blaming others]."
Officials have called on Iranians to self-isolate and stop all nonessential travels to help contain the spread of the disease in the country.
Many people appear to be heeding the call.
Unlike previous years, many say they are staying home and refraining from visiting relatives and close friends to extend new year’s greetings and wishes.
“It’s the first Norouz without my parents, I don’t want to put them at risk,” a man in Tehran said. “It doesn’t feel like [Norouz].”
But many images published by domestic news agencies suggested many Iranians did not respect the calls to self-isolate and stay home for Norouz.
Many were seen shopping in a bazaar in the capital hours before Norouz while reports suggested others had completely ignored travel warnings ahead of the two-week-long holiday.
Nearly 60,000 cars had entered the northeastern city of Mashhad, media reported on March 20, quoting the head of the city’s local council, Mohammad Reza Heydari, who warned of a “human catastrophe” in the city where a shrine had only been closed recently to prevent gatherings.
"The number is 40 percent lower from last year. But it’s still very high," Heydari was quoted as saying on Instagram.
Amid the reports of Iranians not conforming to government warnings about staying home, some say they are worried about what’s to come.
“I set up my Haftsin (a traditional display of seven items beginning with the 'seen' (س) letter of the Persian alphabet) with a heavy heart. People are dying and it’s going to get worse. Many are going to lose their jobs and [the authorities] don’t know what they’re doing,” another woman said.
For many, the coronavirus outbreak is the culmination of a very difficult year that was marked by a series of tragic events, including devastating floods, a deadly November crackdown on antiestablishment protests, confrontation with the United States after it killed Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, and the January downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed 176 people onboard.
“I hope the new year brings us some relief but with the coronavirus crisis and the bad economic situation, it’s difficult to be optimistic,” a man in Isfahan said on social media.
Iranian news agencies posted images of a Norouz celebration at hospitals where health-care workers have become overwhelmed by the flow of patients and shortages of medicine and protective wear, including masks.
A number of doctors and nurses are reported to have died recently after contracting the COVID-19 disease while treating the sick.
On March 19, five former health ministers called on President Hassan Rohani to "strictly bar unnecessary movement and travel between provinces.”
In a letter published by Iranian media, they warned that failure to do so would amount to "playing with people's lives."
"The surest way for controlling and slowing this disease and saving the country from it, is to disrupt the chain of contacts between healthy people and the sick and the carriers,” they said.
Iran’s Health Ministry said on March 19 that recently an Iranian was dying every 10 minutes from COVID-19 as the death toll was reaching well above 100 people.