TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s supreme leader put the Islamic Republic’s armed forces on alert today to assist health officials in combating the outbreak of the new coronavirus — the deadliest outside of China — that authorities say has killed 77 people.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decision was announced after state media broadcast images of the 80-year-old leader planting a tree wearing disposable gloves ahead of Iran’s upcoming arbor day, showing how concern about the virus now reaches up to the top of the country’s Shiite theocracy. Iranian media reported that 23 members of parliament now had the virus, as did the head of the country’s emergency services.
“Whatever helps public health and prevents the spread of the disease is good and what helps to spread it is sin,” Khamenei said, who has not worn gloves at past arbor day plantings.
After downplaying the coronavirus as recently as last week, Iranian authorities said today they had plans to potentially mobilize 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus. It wasn’t clear if Khamenei’s order would set them in motion helping sanitize streets, direct traffic and track possible contacts those ill with the virus had with others, as initially suggested.
There are now over 2,530 cases of the new coronavirus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran in the region, most link back to the Islamic Republic.
Yet experts worry Iran’s percentage of deaths to infections, now around 3.3 percent, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be far greater than current figures show.
Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi on Monday makes him the highest-ranking official within Iran’s leadership to be killed by the virus. State media referred to him as a confidant of Khamenei.
The virus earlier killed Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, as well as a recently elected member of parliament.
Those sick include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as “Sister Mary.” 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.