As vaccination efforts continue to fall behind, fears are growing of another major resurgence in coronavirus infections.
Tehran, Iran – Iran braces for a new wave of COVID-19 infections as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads in the country’s southern and southeastern provinces.
Concerned on Saturday, President Hassan Rouhani noted that compliance with health protocols such as the use of masks and physical distancing had decreased.
“If we are not careful enough, there are fears that the country may face a fifth wave,” he said during a televised session of the anti-coronavirus task force.
Official figures show that the pandemic has so far killed nearly 85,000 people in Iran, the worst-affected country in the Middle East. At least 3.23 million cases have been recorded in the country of more than 83 million people.
According to the latest update from the Ministry of Health, 92 counties in about half of the country’s 32 provinces, including Tehran, are now classified as “red” on a color scale indicating the severity of epidemics.
Sistan and Baluchestan, Iran’s second largest province on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, records around 1,200 cases and 20 deaths per day, roughly equivalent to the number recorded for Pakistan as a whole , a country of more than 220 million inhabitants.
To counter the deterioration of the situation, a travel ban has been imposed to and from 266 cities classified as “red” and “orange” and a restriction on the movement of vehicles is in force in all cities from 10 pm to 3 am.
In the capital, Tehran, which has more than 12 million inhabitants during the day when commuters also arrive from neighboring areas, 70% of workers are expected to work remotely from Saturday. Essential workers will be physically functioning at half capacity.
In his speech, Rouhani said last month’s polls – the presidential vote on June 18 and especially the municipal and village elections that followed it – had an effect on the growing number of cases. The outgoing president, who is due to succeed Ebrahim Raisi next month, also cited summer travel as another factor.
Despite growing concerns, nationwide university entrance exams involving more than 1.3 million students began on Wednesday and lasted until Saturday.
Slow vaccine deployment
Fears over the new wave come as Iran’s vaccination campaign continues to fall behind schedule.
The health ministry said on Friday that nearly 4.5 million people had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is equivalent to about five percent of the total population.
Vaccines administered so far have come from Russia, China, India, Cuba and COVAX, an international program designed to boost vaccine distribution in low-income countries.
But repeated delays in importing vaccines have resulted in gaps of several weeks in vaccination efforts.
Many videos have circulated on social networks showing queues of several hours and elderly and vulnerable people crammed into vaccination centers that leave no room for physical distancing.
Rouhani also acknowledged the problem on Saturday, but promised the situation would improve in the coming weeks with the expected arrival of more vaccines.
But with US sanctions causing problems with transferring money to buy vaccines, besides hitting Iran’s economy, the country relies mostly on its locally developed products.
Two local vaccines have received emergency use authorizations while several more are undergoing various stages of human trials and are expected to be administered to the masses in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the head of Setad, the organization led by Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei in charge of developing COVIran Barekat, the first locally developed vaccine, said 2.7 million doses had been produced and 400,000 vaccines had been delivered to the Ministry of Health.
Mohammad Mokhber also said that 50 million doses will be manufactured by the end of September.
Authorities have said they plan to vaccinate most of the population by the end of the current Iranian calendar year, in March 2022.