Iran's Khamenei warns economy will worsen if virus spreads

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments to the parliament came as coronavirus infection rates have again been on the rise in Iran since the start of May (AFP Photo/-)
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Tehran (AFP) - Iran's supreme leader warned on Saturday that the country's economic problems would worsen if the novel coronavirus spreads unchecked, as the government launched a mask-wearing campaign.

The Islamic republic has struggled to curb the COVID-19 outbreak since it reported its first cases in the Shiite holy city of Qom in February.

It shut down non-essential businesses, closed schools and cancelled public events in March, but gradually lifted restrictions from April to try to reopen the country's sanctions-hit economy.

"It is correct to say that something must be done to prevent economic problems caused by the coronavirus," said Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"But in the case of negligence and significant spread of the disease, economic problems will increase, too," he said, according to his official website.

The Iranian rial has plunged to new lows against the US dollar in recent days due to the temporary economic shutdown, border closures and halt in non-oil exports, according to analysts.

Iran's economic problems had already worsened since 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions on the Islamic republic, targeting vital oil sales and banking facilities.

- 'Every 13 minutes one dies' -

Those woes have been exacerbated by the country's coronavirus outbreak.

Health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said Saturday there had been 2,456 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, raising the country's caseload to 220,180.

Lari added in televised remarks that 125 of those infected had died during the same period, with overall fatalities reaching 10,364.

Khamenei said that "the sacrifice of health workers, efforts by volunteer groups and overall cooperation by the people made Iran one of the world's successful countries" in controlling the virus.

"But that was early in the (outbreak), and now unfortunately that momentum and effort has waned among some of the people and authorities," he added.

Official figures have shown a rising trajectory in new confirmed cases since early May, when Iran hit a near two-month low in daily recorded infections.

The health ministry launched an "#I wear mask" campaign on Saturday and pleaded with Iranians to observe guidelines aimed at curbing infections.

Iran's government has refrained from imposing a mandatory lockdown on people to rein in the disease, but there have been calls for mask-wearing to be made compulsory.

"Every 33 seconds one Iranian is infected with the coronavirus and every 13 minutes one dies from it. This is a warning, for us to better observe social distancing," said deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi.

Speaking on state television, he warned that anyone infected who does not observe health protocols can "directly or indirectly infect 406 people".

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