Virus kills member of council advising Iran's supreme leader
TEHRAN/ SEOUL-The Associated Press
Vietnamese students of Hanoi National University of Education, wearing protective masks, attend the first day of classes after returning to the university, which was closed for over a month due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 2, 2020. (REUTERS Photo)
A member of a council that advises Iran's supreme leader died on March 2 after falling sick from the new coronavirus, state radio reported, becoming the first top official to succumb to the illness that is affecting members of the Islamic Republic's leadership.
Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi died at a Tehran hospital of the virus, state radio said. He was 71.
The council advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as settles disputes between the supreme leader and parliament.
His death comes as other top officials have contracted the virus in Iran, which has the highest death toll in the world after China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
Those sick included include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as "Sister Mary," the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported. Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.
Iran has reported 978 confirmed cases of the new virus with 54 deaths from the illness it causes, called COVID-19. Across the wider Mideast, there are over 1,150 cases of the new coronavirus, the majority of which are linked back to Iran.
Experts worry Iran's percentage of deaths to infections, around 5.5 percent, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be much higher than current figures show.
Trying to stem the outbreak of the new coronavirus, Iran on Monday held an online-only briefing by its Foreign Ministry.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi opened the online news conference addressing the outbreak, dismissing an offer of help for Iran by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Iran and the U.S. have seen some of the worst tensions since its 1979 Islamic Revolution in recent months, culminating in the American drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad and a subsequent Iranian ballistic missile counterattack against U.S. forces.
"We neither count on such help nor are we ready to accept verbal help," Mousavi said. He added Iran has always been "suspicious" about America's intentions and accused the U.S. government of trying to weaken Iranians' spirits over the outbreak.
The British Embassy meanwhile has begun evacuations over the virus.
"Essential staff needed to continue critical work will remain," the British Foreign Office said. "In the event that the situation deteriorates further, the ability of the British Embassy to provide assistance to British nationals from within Iran may be limited."
While Iran has closed schools and universities to stop the spread of the virus, major Shiite shrines have remained open despite civilian authorities calling for them to be closed. The holy cities of Mashhad and Qom in particular, both home to shrines, have been hard-hit by the virus. Shiites often touch and kiss shrines as a sign of their faith. Authorities have been cleaning the shrines with disinfectants.
Police have arrested one man who posted a video showing himself licking the metal enclosing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, the most-important Shiite saint buried in the country, according to reports by semiofficial news agencies. In the video, the man said he licked the metal to "allow others to visit the shrine with peace of mind."
Meanwhile, on March 2, the virus outbreak saw itself dragged into the yearslong boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations over a political dispute.
A prominent columnist at Dubai's government-owned Al-Bayan newspaper on Twitter falsely described the virus as being a plot by Qatar to hurt the upcoming Expo 2020 world's fair in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Noura al-Moteari later described the tweet as "satire" to The Associated Press after it gained widespread attention.
The Dubai Media Office similarly described the tweet as being written in a "cynical style" while distancing the Arabic-language daily from al-Moteari.
"Noura is a freelance writer and is not an employee of Al-Bayan nor does she represent the publication's views," it told the AP. "That being said, this has no relevance to any social media policy being practiced by the publication nor the state."
The tweet comes after Qatar expressed disappointment on March 1 that nearly all of its Gulf neighbors snubbed invitations to attend the weekend peace signing ceremony between the U.S. and the Taliban.
Patients fill hospitals in more places as new virus expands
In the meantime, South Korea's viral outbreak surged and millions of children in Japan stayed home from school on March 2 as officials wrestled with the epidemic in more than 60 countries, including the United States, where two people have died.
As new battle fronts against the coronavirus opened with surprising speed around the globe, recovered patients left China's hastily built hospitals and isolation wards, freeing up patient beds in the city where the COVID-19 illness has hit hardest.
China, where the epidemic began in December, reported a mere 202 new cases over the previous 24 hours, with another 42 deaths. That brings the country's total number of cases to 80,026 with 2,912 deaths recorded in all. The city of Wuhan accounted for most of the new cases, but also saw 2,570 patients released.
March 2's increase was China's lowest since Jan. 21. China still has about three-fourths of the world's nearly 89,000 cases worldwide, but outbreaks were surging in other countries with South Korea, Italy and Iran seeing sharp increases.
The United States counted 80 cases as of March 1 and two deaths, both men with existing health problems who had been hospitalized in Washington state. The U.S. total includes evacuees from a virus-stricken cruise ship and from Wuhan, but new cases among California health workers, in New York, Rhode Island and Washington raised concerns on both U.S. coasts.
The second U.S. fatality was a man in his 70s from a nursing facility near Seattle where dozens of sick people were tested for the virus, Washington state health officials said. Researchers said earlier the virus may have been circulating for weeks undetected in Washington state.
Indonesia confirmed its first cases on March 1, in two people who contracted the illness from a foreign traveler.
The surging outbreak in South Korea's fourth-largest city has overwhelmed its health system despite the national government sending assistance. The problem in Daegu has been highlighted by at least four deaths of infected elderly people who were waiting to be hospitalized.
Kim Gang-lip, South Korea's vice health minister, said hospitals' capacities from now on will be reserved for patients with serious symptoms or preexisting medical conditions, while mild cases will be isolated at designated facilities outside hospitals.
"Considering our limited medical resources, it will be crucial to make quick assessments of patients' conditions and provide quick, professional and active treatment to those with serious symptoms, and minimize fatalities, Kim said. "If we continue to hospitalize mild patients amid the continued surge in infections, we would be risking overworking medical professionals and putting them at greater risk of infections.
South Korea on March 2 had 476 new cases for a total of 4,212. Twenty-two people have died.
A sense of burgeoning crisis around the globe has sent financial markets plummeting, emptied major streets and tourist attractions and forced millions of people to adjust their daily lives.
In Japan, many schools began following through on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plan to close them for more than a month through the end of the Japanese academic year.
While the virus has caused serious illness mainly for the elderly and those with existing health problems, most have had mild illness and some infected apparently show no symptoms at all.
But attempts to contain the spread of the virus have been far-reaching.
The Louvre Museum was closed after France curbed large gatherings, and the U.S. issued an advisory against travel to the region of northern Italy where its outbreak is concentrated.
The outbreaks and rising travel concern could deal a heavy blow to those countries' tourism industries. Spring, especially Easter, is a hugely popular time for schoolchildren to visit France and Italy.