COVID-19 spikes again in Iran, with regional implications

For two successive days, senior officials from the Ministry of Health in Iran have warned of a spike in coronavirus infections in their country.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – For two successive days, senior officials from the Ministry of Health in Iran have warned of a spike in coronavirus infections in their country.

The spike in Iranian cases has implications for the Kurdistan Region, as well as Iraq, almost certainly contributing to the rise that they have each seen in their own coronavirus cases.

On Tuesday, the spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Health, Dr. Kianoush Jahanpour, announced that 3,117 new cases of the coronavirus had been discovered over the past 24 hours. That represents the highest number of new infections since April 1, when the virus was close to its peak in Iran.

Iran’s Health Minister, Saeed Namaki, similarly warned of a second wave striking the country. “Not only is corona not finished, we might also get a dangerous peak at any moment,” Namaki said on Monday.

Further addressing the issue on Tuesday, Namaki explained that contrary to earlier beliefs, warmer weather did not block the spread of the virus.

“The same thing that we witnessed in Gilan and Qom,” where the virus first emerged in Iran in mid-February, “is now happening in the warmer southern provinces,” he said.

Namaki also stressed that all people, regardless of their age, were vulnerable. “The virus is infecting the young and old,” he affirmed.

The Reasons why COVID-19 is spiking again in Iran

Two causes for Iran’s increased infection rates have been cited. One is that the population has become careless, thinking the danger has passed or otherwise heedless of the risk.

“Two days ago, I was in Mashad,” Namaki said in an earlier television interview. “Social distancing is not observed. People are not wearing masks” and “what I saw was appalling,” before warning of the virus’ resurgence, as Radio Farda reported.

The second reason for the spike in Iranian coronavirus cases is economic. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has pushed, largely successfully, for a reopening of the Iranian economy, despite opposition from health ministry officials.

Already in April, as the number of coronavirus cases dropped, Iran “began easing some restrictions such as local bazaars and shopping malls,” The Wall Street Journal explained on Tuesday, as it reported on the rise in Iranian infections.

“This past weekend, the government gave permission for all state employees to return to work and allowed gyms to reopen, removing most of the restrictions on businesses,” the Journal continued. “Mosques across the country, some of which had been allowed to perform Friday prayers, are now permitted to hold daily congregations.”

Of course, the result has been a renewed upsurge in Iran’s coronavirus cases.

Regional and Ethnic Variations in COVID-19 Infections

COVID-19 has caused more harm to Iran’s ethnic minorities than to Iran’s Persian population, as Ramin Jabbarli and Brenda Shaffer explained in a Middle East Institute paper, entitled, “COVID-19: Hitting Iran’s minorities harder.”

They attribute that to the fact that minorities tend to live in Iran’s outlying border provinces, where people are poorer and the health infrastructure inferior to that in the country’s Persian center.

On Tuesday, the spokesman for Iran’s Health Ministry suggested as much. In his daily briefing, Jahanpour explained that the coronavirus outbreak in six provinces, including West and East Azerbaijan Provinces, in the north, and Khuzestan Province in the south, was particularly worrisome.

The southern area of West Azerbaijan Province borders the Kurdistan Region. While the province is predominantly Azeri Turkish, roughly one quarter of the population is Kurdish.

Roughly a quarter of Iran’s southern Khuzestan Province is Arab, and it borders Iraq’s Basra province.

In their paper, published already on April 19, Jabbarli and Shaffer warned that because Iran’s ethnic minorities have higher rates of the virus and tend to live in Iran’s border areas, “reopening Iran’s borders will likely facilitate COVID-19 dissemination regionally.”

The Consequence of Reopening Border Crossings with Iran

In an article entitled, “Iraq reopens 2 border crossings to help boost battered Iranian economy,” Al-Monitor explained that a week before, Rouhani had called Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, “asking him to accelerate the procedures for reopening the border between the two countries for trade.”

“Two of five Iranian-Iraqi border crossings” have reopened “for both goods and individuals to the benefit of Iran’s sanctions and coronavirus-hit economy, and of Iraqis in the south and in the KRG-run north,” Al-Monitor reported on May 18.

The incubation period for the coronavirus is roughly three to 14 days. It was a little over 14 days later, when Iraq and the Kurdistan Region each began to report their own spikes in coronavirus cases.

Indeed, as Kurdistan 24 just reported, “On Tuesday, the federal Iraqi Ministry of Health announced its highest numbers yet of new daily infections of the coronavirus since the beginning of its spread throughout the country, while the ministry’s counterpart in the autonomous Kurdistan Region confirmed that its own current uptick is continuing as well.”

Read More: Unprecedented number of new COVID-19 cases in Iraq; Kurdistan’s spike continues

Figures from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are particularly telling, as the KRG’s Health Ministry breaks its statistics down by the area in which the new infections occur.

According to figures that the Health Ministry released on Monday, 102 of the 104 new coronavirus cases in the Kurdistan Region were in Sulaimani province, which borders Iran. Of those 102 cases in Sulaimani, fully half – 51 – occurred in Penjwin, a town lying on a major highway, just five miles from a designated border crossing between Iran and Iraq.

Kurdish officials are, doubtless, well aware of this problem, but the public may not be—those who travel to Iran, do so at their peril. The country, particularly the border areas, has a high rate of coronavirus infections.

And, as this analysis suggests, one of the most vital steps in controlling the spread of the coronavirus in the Kurdistan Region, as well as Iraq, is to monitor and control the traffic from Iran.

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany