Centre for religious studies became Asia hub of COVID-19

Iran, which has had a high incidence of the coronavirus COVID-19, has found it spread outwards from the city of Qom which has many religious seminaries, mostly run by the state.

With many international students and holy sites frequented by Muslim Shiite pilgrims from around the world on a regular basis, Qom has served as the epicentre of spreading the virus, with neighbouring Pakistan, Afghanistan and even India reporting positive and suspected cases with traces reaching back to Qom.

Three months after the virus was first detected in China in December 2019, the number of suspected cases in Iran has reached 9,000, with more than 354 deaths as of 11 March, according to Iran’s health ministry – the third-highest caseload after China (with over 80,000 cases) and Italy (with 10,150), as of 11 March.

The death rate from coronavirus in Iran is considered particularly high. The authorities announced the first cases only on 19 February after the first two deaths, despite rumours of infections for weeks before that.

Iran’s ministry of health on 23 February announced the closure of universities and schools in several provinces and cities, including Tehran, Qom and Isfahan. Many institutions were closed for a few days in other provinces in order to carry out decontamination operations. The ministry of science issued a directive to ban visitors from university residential accommodation, and to close student camps and swimming pools.

On 9 March, Kianush Jahanpur, head of the Public Relations and Information Center of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education in Iran, said among the cities infected, the capital Tehran is worst affected with 1,945 cases, followed by Qom with 712 cases and Mazandaran with 633 cases.

Academics and institutions fear the outbreak within Iran – a closed society under crippling Western sanctions – might be much more severe, mainly due to:

  • • Under-reporting caused by lengthy delays in death certificates being issued because of the lengthy process coroners have to go through before issuing them.

  • • Hospitals until a 7 March ruling being required to confirm and register every death by coronavirus, testing if the symptoms and CT scans confirm coronavirus infection.

  • • A culture of fear and censorship.

At least one member of parliament, academic Gholamreza Heydari, who is MP for Tehran, has called for the trial of clerics who opposed imposing a quarantine on the city of Qom when the outbreak started, Iran’s Radio Farda reported.

Iran's Vice-President, Masoumeh Ebtekar – who gained fame in 1979 as Sister Mary, the spokeswoman for the students who seized the United States embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage – announced that she, too, had contracted the coronavirus. The day before, she had attended a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet.

Two members of parliament, including the chairman of the Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, have fallen prey to the virus.

A Pakistani student who had been studying in Qom told University World News on 5 March from Islamabad that religious schools in Qom had closed and were conducting online classes.

However, with many people travelling during Iran’s new year Nowruz holidays from 20 March, fears of further spread are growing, with residents of several towns blockading the roads to bar visitors.

Beyond Iran’s borders

Iranian students have become stranded in different parts of the world as many countries cut air and ground connections with the western Asian country. According to Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, an estimated 7,000 Iranian students are stuck in Turkey, after Turkey sealed its borders and suspended flights. In some cases the stranded students are having to deal with negative perceptions in the eyes of some local people over fears of transmitting the virus.

Dr Nazer Ahmed Dehgan, head of the disease control committee in Afghanistan’s Herat province bordering Iran, told University World News all seven confirmed cases of the virus in Afghanistan are linked to Iran, and also include students from Qom seminaries.

Afghanistan’s health department said that the three suspected cases recently returned from Iran.

“All suspected individuals are kept in isolation,” Dr Ahmed Dehgan said, adding that more than 2,000 refugees and returnees are crossing over from Iran to Afghanistan every day, raising fears of an outbreak which would be impossible for the fragile Afghan health system to control.

Schools, colleges and universities in Pakistan’s Sindh and Balochistan provinces remained closed this week, with Balochistan postponing the school matriculation examination in the province. The Sindh health department confirmed that in the case of one of the confirmed cases in the province, the patient had returned from Iran.

Pakistan has suspended flights to Iran.

India to evacuate students

The High Court in the Indian capital New Delhi earlier this month issued a notice to the government lodged by parents of Indian students stranded in Iran, seeking their evacuation. In February, India evacuated more than 640 of its citizens, many of them medical students, from China, where the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak is located.

“In the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, the situation in the cities of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Kish Island and other cities has become volatile,” the plea said, noting that flights between Iran and India have been suspended since 27 February.

India’s External Affairs Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said in a statement to the Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament on 11 March that the government was “in the process” of evacuating 1,400 Indian nationals, mostly residents of Jammu and Kashmir. Around 1,100 Indian pilgrims are also stranded in Iran, many of them in Qom, while 300 are students, mostly from Jammu and Kashmir, the minister said.

Data released this week by UNESCO showed the crisis impacting close to 363 million learners worldwide, from the pre-primary to tertiary level, including 57.8 million students in higher education.

In response to a surge in school and university closures to contain the spread of COVID-19, UNESCO on Tuesday convened a global video-conference of higher education officials to step up the emergency response and share strategies to minimise learning disruption worldwide.

Seventy-three countries, including Iran, were represented in this UNESCO video-conference, with 24 education ministers and 15 vice ministers participating.