By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI, Feb 29 (Reuters) – Deaths in Iran from coronavirus have hit 43, the highest number outside China, and the total number of infected people has risen to 593, an Iranian health official said on Saturday.
As several countries in the Middle East reported cases of the coronavirus stemming from Iran, the country is at the epicentre of the outbreak in the region.
“Unfortunately nine people died of the virus in the last 24 hours, increasing the death toll to 43 … the total number of infected people is 593,” Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told state TV, calling on people to stay at home.
Iran‘s Health Minister Saeed Namaki warned on Friday of “a very difficult week” ahead in Iran, which only announced its first infections and deaths from the coronavirus on Feb. 19 and where the death rate among confirmed cases has been around 10%, compared to around 3% elsewhere.
Tehran has ordered the shutting of schools until Tuesday and the government has extended the closure of universities and a ban on concerts and sports events for a week.
Several high-ranking officials, including a vice minister, deputy health minister and five lawmakers, have tested positive for the coronavirus as outbreak forced Iran‘s clerical rulers to close the parliament and impose internal travel bans.
One lawmaker, elected in Iran‘s Feb. 21 polls, had died of the coronavirus, Iranian media reported on Saturday.
Iran‘s government spokesman will hold his weekly news conference online due to the outbreak, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.
Iran‘s foreign ministry advised Iranians to avoid trips to South Korea, which reported 594 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, taking its tally to 2,931 cases.
Saudi Arabia is now the only Persian Gulf Arab state not to have reported any cases of the coronavirus, which has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,800, mostly in China.
“This is an international problem and all nations should work together to overcome the coronavirus crisis,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Qatar’s ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on Saturday by telephone, state TV reported.
However, Iran has rejected as “ridiculous” the U.S. offer to help with its coronavirus outbreak.
Tensions have been high between Tehran and Washington since 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers and reimposed sanctions which have battered the Islamic Republic’s economy.
Iranian authorities said the U.S. sanctions were hampering Tehran’s ability to get medical supplies from other countries, something which Washington has denied.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Alexander Smith)