Iran has belatedly put in place travel restrictions which amount to a stay-at-home order for the entire country. This comes as the country announced Wednesday that the death toll from the virus had reached 2,077:

The strict new measures come after weeks of cajoling largely failed to prevent hundreds of thousands of Iranians taking to the roads to visit family for the two-week Persian New Year holiday.

“New journeys will be banned, leaving towns and cities will be banned,” government spokesman Ali Rabii announced, hours after President Hassan Rouhani revealed the government was poised to introduce “difficult” new measures against the outbreak.

“People should return to their home towns as quickly as possible,” Rabii said…

Iran had long resisted imposing any lockdown, choosing instead to rely on verbal appeals for people to stay home.

The appeals for people to stay home have clearly not worked and today’s announcement came with the warning that the country could expect a “second wave” of infections because they ignored those appeals:

“Unfortunately some Iranians have ignored advice from health ministry officials and traveled during the New Year holidays … This could cause a second wave of the coronavirus,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said, according to state TV.

Last week the Associated Press reported that many businesses in Iran were shuttered but that, “Iranians appear not to be heeding warnings by health officials to stay home and avoid crowds.”

Even as Iran continues to issue daily updates on infection rates and death tolls, there is reason to think the actual rates are much higher than reported. Earlier this month the Washington Post reported that mass graves large enough to be seen from space were being dug in Qom, the city where the virus first spread. And just last week a doctor appeared on state TV and warned that, if people continue to ignore warnings to stay home, up to 3.5 million could die.

Yesterday, Foreign Policy published a piece attempting to explain how Iran wound up in this dire situation. It notes that even after President Rouhani took initial steps to deal with the virus that were strong opposition to quarantine to slow the virus:

When Iran finally did take concerted action to contain the spread, domestic politics and religious ideology impaired its effectiveness.

On the one hand, the administration of President Hassan Rouhani set up a “national headquarters for fighting the coronavirus” in February following a decision by the Supreme National Security Council and its endorsement by the supreme leader. For all its efforts to limit the outbreak, the headquarters notoriously resisted organized quarantine measures from the very beginning. In a press conference on Feb. 24, Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi publicly opposed the sort of wide-scale quarantining China had enforced and stressed that “quarantines belong to [the period] before World War I for [diseases like] plague and cholera, and even the Chinese are not satisfied with the quarantine that has been put in place.” Ironically, Harirchi was making these comments while sweating profusely and coughing repeatedly. He later tested positive for the coronavirus.

On the other hand, Khamenei ordered the Iranian military, led by the Revolutionary Guards, to establish Imam Reza Base as part of state efforts to combat the pandemic. Headed by Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, armed forces chief of staff and one of Iran’s most seasoned strategists, this military contingent proposed a set of preventive measures in its first meeting on March 13: a national monitoring program to identify the infected and those suspected of infection, provision by the military of 1,000 mobile and stationary clinics for screening and examining the cases, and organization of a national campaign to “de-crowd stores, streets, and roads.” These proposal, however, mostly fell on deaf ears among military officers and other officials who shunned the quarantines and shutdowns for fear of their economic fallout.

The story also points out that as early as Feb. 15th, Iran was already preventing people from kissing the Ayatollah’s hand, as was customary. So the country was taking some social distancing steps for the Ayatollah but was rejecting quarantine measures for everyone else more than a week later.

Update: Not exactly related to the subject of this post but I wanted to mention it anyway. Iranian hostage Robert Levinson has died while still in captivity in Iran. His death apparently came before the coronavirus spread in Iran but his family has only just learned of it.