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Iran's leaders strike upbeat tone as virus toll climbs

AP  |  Tehran 

Iran's leaders on Friday announced 149 more fatalities from the new coronavirus, bringing its death toll to 1,433 amid nearly 20,000 confirmed cases.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East, and has been widely criticised for its slow response.

The country's leaders struck an upbeat tone earlier Friday, issuing messages in honor of the Persian new year in which they vowed to overcome the pandemic.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, called the new year the year of leaps in production in Iran's economy, which has been under heavy US sanctions since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord.

President Hassan Rouhani marked the new year, known as Nowruz, by promising a better economy. We will put the Coronavirus behind us soon with unity, with hard work and with cooperation, he said.

Most people who come down with the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus experience only minor symptoms and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people showing no symptoms. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, particularly in sick or elderly patients.

More than 240,000 people have been infected worldwide. More than 10,000 have died, while more than 85,000 have recovered.

Rouhani has defended his government's response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections rapidly spread across the country.

He also sought to highlight what he viewed as the achievements of the past year, including the downing of a sophisticated U.S. drone and missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iran's top general in Baghdad.

Rouhani assured Iranians that his administration will prioritize health in the coming year and said it had stockpiled basic supplies.

Khamenei issued a religious edict this week prohibiting all unnecessary travel and authorities have restricted travel between cities. After weeks of heavy criticism, authorities finally closed two major religious shrines in recent days.

Other countries in the region have imposed far stricter measures to contain the virus, including cancelling flights, sealing borders and forcing all non-essential businesses to close. Saudi Arabia announced early Friday it would shut down domestic air travel, buses, taxis and trains for the next two weeks, beginning on Saturday morning. The monarchy has reported 274 confirmed cases, eight of whom recovered.

In a televised address late Thursday, King Salman said we are living through a difficult phase of the world's history. However, we are completely certain that this phase will end and pass, despite its harshness and bitterness and its difficulties, he said.

King Salman assured Saudis that the country had sufficient medical care and supplies to get through the crisis.

Pakistan meanwhile reported its third death from the coronavirus, a 77-year-old cancer patient, in its southern Sindh province. Pakistan has reported 452 confirmed cases, most linked to travel to neighboring Iran.

Pakistan closed its borders with Iran and Afghanistan weeks ago, but Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday asked authorities to allow trucks carrying food and other essential items to cross into landlocked Afghanistan, where infections are also on the rise.

Pakistan closed its border with India near Lahore on Thursday. It is also placing hundreds of returning religious pilgrims into quarantine.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Fri, March 20 2020. 16:30 IST
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