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|Iran's coronavirus death toll is by far the highest outside China (Photo: AFP/ATTA KENARE)|
The authorities in Iran have come under mounting public pressure since it took days for them to admit to "accidentally" shooting down a Ukrainian airliner last month, killing 176 people.
The government announced Iran's coronavirus death toll had jumped by four to 12 - by far the highest outside China - as several regional countries reported their first cases on Monday, even after imposing travel restrictions and strict quarantine measures.
But Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a lawmaker from the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, alleged Iran's government was "lying" about the death toll.
"As of last night, about 50 people have died" from the COVID-19 outbreak in Qom alone, he was quoted as saying by ILNA news agency after a closed session of parliament on the crisis.
The government rejected the claim.
"I ask our brother who declared this figure of 50 deaths to provide us with a list of their names," said Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi.
"If the number of deaths in Qom reaches half or a quarter of this figure, I will resign."
SUSPICION ON STREETS
But people on Tehran's streets were also suspicious.
"State TV gives us statistics, but when we go to hospitals we see something different. The number of people who died is much more," said Elahe Zarabi, 56, a housewife carrying bags of bleach.
Shoaib, a 24-year-old pharmacy employee, said the shop was running out of stocks as it had gone from selling 500 face masks a day to 10,000.
"The mullahs are saying Muslims are immune because of their faith," he said. "How will they quarantine a huge city like Tehran when they cannot even quarantine a hospital?"
Iran has been scrambling to contain COVID-19 since Wednesday when it announced the first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad.
Authorities have ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centres across the country as a "preventive measure".
But it has not all been doom and gloom.
A video has gone viral of young men greeting each other by tapping their feet together to avoid infection, instead of shaking hands or the increasingly common fist-bump.
The government also vowed to be open about the disease's spread.
"We will announce any figures (we have) on the number of deaths throughout the country. We pledge to be transparent about the reporting of figures," spokesman Ali Rabiei said.
Assadollah Abbassi, a spokesman for Iran's parliament, announced the latest four deaths among 61 infections after Monday's session.
Citing Health Minister Said Namaki, he said "the cause of coronavirus infections in Iran are people who have entered the country illegally from Pakistan, Afghanistan and China".
After reporting two deaths in Qom, Iran has yet to give a breakdown of where the other patients died.
The province worst hit by infections is Qom, with 34 cases, according to official figures.
The others are in Tehran with 13 infections, Gilan with six, Markazi with four, Isfahan with two and one each for Hamedan and Mazandaran.
The health minister said one person who died in Qom was a businessman who had made trips to China.
Namaki said direct flights between Iran and China had been suspended, but the Qom businessman had travelled there "on a connecting flight".
Iran's Mahan Air said it had stopped China services this month, apart from eight flights to deliver virus aid to China and return people under the health ministry's supervision.
Since it emerged in December, the new coronavirus has killed nearly 2,600 people in China.
Iran now accounts for nearly half of the 30 deaths so far reported elsewhere in the world.
Many of Iran's neighbours have reported infections in people who had travelled to the Islamic republic.
Afghanistan on Monday reported its first case in a person who had been to Qom.
Baghdad and Muscat also reported their first cases - an elderly Iranian citizen living in Iraq's Najaf and two Omani women who had returned from the Islamic republic.
Iraq has shut its border with Iran and imposed a travel ban, while Oman halted flights to and from the virus-hit country.
Preventive measures have been imposed by Afghanistan, Armenia, Pakistan and Turkey.
Kuwait and Bahrain also confirmed their first novel coronavirus cases, all of whom had come from Iran.