Iran calls on people to stay at home as death toll rises to 43

A man wearing walks past a mural depicting the Iranian flag along a street in Teheran on Feb 29, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DUBAI (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 (Feb 29).

The country is at the epicentre of the outbreak in the region, with several countries in the Middle East reporting cases of the coronavirus stemming from Iran.

"Unfortunately nine people died of the virus in the last 24 hours, increasing the death toll to 43," Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told state TV, calling on people to stay at home.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki on Friday warned 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 per cent, compared to around 3 per cent elsewhere.

Teheran has ordered the shutting of schools until Tuesday and extended the closure of universities and a ban on concerts and sports events for a week. Authorities have also banned visits to hospitals and nursing homes.

Several high-ranking officials, including a vice minister, the deputy health minister and five lawmakers, have tested positive for the virus as the outbreak forced Iran's clerical rulers to close the parliament and impose internal travel bans.

One lawmaker, elected in Iran's Feb 21 polls, has died of the coronavirus, Iranian media reported on Saturday.

The government spokesman will hold his weekly news conference online due to the outbreak, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.

The foreign ministry advised Iranians to avoid trips to South Korea, which on Saturday reported its largest daily increase in the number of infections yet, with the total number rising by 813 to 3,150. The death toll stood at 17, up four from a day earlier.

Saudi Arabia is now the only 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" a US offer to help with the outbreak.

Tensions have been high between Teheran and Washington since 2018, when US 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 US sanctions were hampering Teheran's ability to get medical supplies from other countries, something which Washington has denied.

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