Iranians told to stay at home as coronavirus death toll rises to 354

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran urged people to stay at home, avoid unnecessary journeys and spread no rumors about the coronavirus on Wednesday after the death toll from the virus rose to 354 in the Islamic Republic.

“We have identified 958 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in the last 24 hours, increasing the total number of cases to 9,000 across Iran,” Kianush Jahanpur, a health ministry spokesman, told state television. “Also 63 people have lost their lives in the past 24 hours.”

In moves to prevent panic over the coronavirus in Iran, the worst-hit country in the Middle East, President Hassan Rouhani appealed to people not to spread rumors and the judiciary banned most officials from announcing numbers of those infected.

“Only the health ministry … is in charge of announcing figures … violators will be charged with acting against national security,” said Iran’s prosecutor-general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri in a statement, state TV reported.

The outbreak has infected a host of senior officials, politicians and clerics in Iran, the fourth worst-affected nation after China, South Korea and Italy.

At least seven officials and politicians, including an adviser to Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have died from the coronavirus, according to Iranian state media.

Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has canceled his annual public speech marking the Iranian new year on March 20. He said doctors and nurses who die “combating the virus will be recognized as martyrs”.

Iran has closed schools and universities, suspended religious, cultural and sporting events and reduced working hours to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

But the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran Javaid Rehman said on Tuesday Iran’s efforts to contain coronavirus had been inadequate, adding that “the state has done too little and too late”.

Authorities announced Iran’s first infections and two deaths from the virus on Feb. 19. Iranian officials have dismissed concerns raised by many Iranians over the handling of the outbreak, saying all the necessary measures to overcome the crisis have been taken.

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