As Iran struggles to contain the novel coronavirus, fears are spreading across the Middle East as millions of pilgrims make the trek each year to visit Shiite holy sites in Iran and Iraq.
On Saturday, Feb. 22, Iraq closed its border with Iran in the hope of containing the virus, as Iran is apparently becoming the second focal point after China for the spread of the virus. The infection of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates—even one in Canada—can all be traced back to Iran.
Turkey and Afghanistan have also closed their borders with Iran, where reports that 50 deaths had been reported in Qom were fiercely denied by officials, who stated, “In the whole country, 47 have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Unfortunately, 12 of them have died of the disease so far,” said the spokesman for the Iranian Parliament, Assadollah Abbasi, contradicting the reports out of Qom.
Shiite Muslim pilgrims who traveled to Qom are thought to make up the majority of the so far small numbers of those infected, in Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon.
The Iranian shrine city of Qom has become the focus of the infection, with Shiite Muslims thought to be the group mostly infected.
The health ministry on Thursday requested the governor of Qom to ask Shiite religious leaders to restrict pilgrim numbers at the Shrine the Fatima Masumeh and other sites around the city, however, large groups of worshippers continued to gather for prayers at the shrine.
One infected person from Najaf, Iraq, has caused health officials to close Imam Ali mosque, amid fears pilgrims may be spreading the virus.
“In Iraq, [coronavirus] poses a major public health threat because the Iraqi health system is very weak,” said Dr. Adam Coutts, a specialist on public health in the Middle East at Cambridge University, reported The Guardian. “It potentially could wipe out thousands of people. And there’s no way of tracking it once it gets into a refugee population, given the mobility. These viruses or diseases expose the politics and fragility of public health systems.”
Refugee camps are particularly vulnerable, and Coutts said, “The major issue we have been worrying about is coronavirus getting into the Syrian and Iraqi refugee population, given the conditions in which they live. Overcrowded with no sanitation, plus a lack of access to health care.”
Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey are hosting more than 12 million refugees and internally displaced people, and with their poor living conditions, a pandemic could prove catastrophic.
“Quarantining Qom is not an effective way to contain the coronavirus—we have to look for more effective ways,” said local governor, Barham Sarmast, “Qom is geographically located in the crossroads of 17 provinces of the country and a pilgrimage center. So if we could adopt a quarantine strategy, we would have adopted it already.”
A local news agency in the city tweeted, “The situation in Qom is very bad. Don’t come to Qom and no one should get out of Qom. Qom should be closed. We need a lot of medical help here. We don’t think we have enough medical staff in the city,” reported The Guardian.
The latest official figure for coronavirus infections in Iran as of Feb. 25, are 61 infected and 15 deaths.