Wary of angering public, Iran has few ways to contain virus


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — As coronavirus infections reached new heights in Iran this month, overwhelming its hospitals and driving up its death toll, the country’s health minister gave a rare speech criticizing his own government’s refusal to enforce basic health measures.

“We asked for fines to be collected from anyone who doesn’t wear a mask,” Saeed Namaki said last week, referring to the government’s new mandate for Tehran, the capital. “But go and find out how many people were fined. We said close roads, and yet how many did they close?”

Namaki’s speech, lamenting the country’s “great suffering” and “hospitals full of patients,” clearly laid the blame for the virus’ resurgence at the government’s door — a stark contrast to the usual speeches from officials who point the finger at the public’s defiance of restrictions.

But one day later, the minister had a vastly different message.

“We should not cause panic for people in vain,” Namaki said in a speech carried by the semi-official ISNA news agency. “We should never announce that we don’t have empty (hospital) beds. We do have empty beds.”

The rhetorical about-face is typical of Iranian leaders’ inconsistent response to the pandemic that many see as helping to fuel the virus’ spread. Experts say the mixed messages reflect the fact that the leadership has little room to impose severe restrictions that would damage an already fragile economy — and thus stoke public anger.

“The country is already under such pressure, and Iranians are already policed,” said Sanam Vakil, a researcher on Iran at Chatham House, a London-based policy institute. “If they can’t provide economic resources to help people, to then be overly authoritarian and enforce health measures would undermine their legitimacy even further.”

More than 32,000 people reportedly have died in what is the Middle East’s worst outbreak — and a top health official stressed recently that the true number is likely 2½ times higher.

And it shows no signs of abating. In the last week, Iran shattered its single-day death toll record twice and reported daily infection highs three times.

In a sign that tensions over the government’s haphazard response are coming to a head, even the country’s supreme leader took aim at authorities on Saturday. He demanded for the first time they prioritize public health over “the security and economic aspects” of the pandemic, without elaborating.

“When the Health Ministry determines restrictions, all agencies must observe and enforce them without taking into account other considerations,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared.

For months, even as officials have issued increasingly grim warnings, the government has resisted a nationwide lockdown that would undermine an economy reeling from severe U.S. sanctions, re-imposed in 2018 after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Despite appeals from the United Nations and rights groups that sanctions be eased during the pandemic, America slapped new ones on Iranian banks this month.

The rial plunged to new lows against the dollar, erasing people’s life savings. Millions of workers in informal sectors face the choice between staying home to avoid the virus or feeding their families.

And Iranian authorities have given them no clear guidance. When the virus first struck in February, international experts accused Iran of covering up the crisis. The government, desperately seeking to defuse public anger and boost its legitimacy after its crackdown on nationwide economic protests and the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran, urged people to turn out for a parliamentary vote and to celebrate the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Only in late March — with infections skyrocketing — did Iran impose a two-week shutdown of offices and nonessential businesses. Yet even then, during Nowruz, the Persian New Year and the country’s biggest holiday, Iranians defied travel bans to visit family or head to the coast. A widely watched video on Instagram at the time showed angry drivers attacking and yelling insults at police officers who tried to close the roads in northern Iran. In response, the police retreated and let them go.

When the country reopened in April, infections surged again. As the nation’s death toll soared this month, authorities scrambled to impose a raft of public health measures: shutdowns of recently reopened universities and schools in Tehran, travel bans to and from five major cities, a compulsory mask rule in the capital, home to 10 million people. The deputy health minister last week promised that police would finally “start dealing more seriously with fines” for those who disobey the rules.

But the risk is that if impoverished citizens are fined for failing to wear masks, or middle-class Tehranis are barred from escaping to vacation spots on the northern Caspian coast, public outrage over Iran’s other grievances, including economic distress and international isolation, could boil over.

Angry street demonstrations already have challenged the government this year. Hard-line lawmakers have demanded that President Hassan Rouhani resign, with one of them, Mojtaba Zolnouri, who heads parliament’s influential committee for national security and foreign policy, even publicly calling for his “hanging a thousand times until people’s hearts are satisfied.”

Rouhani is facing pressure from all sides. While medical officials on state TV clamor for a prolonged and centralized shutdown, powerful clerics have called for mass gatherings to mark Shiite holidays, such as Ashoura, saying those who get sick pay the price to keep the holiday “alive.”

“Rouhani’s hands are tied domestically,” said Vakil, adding that Iran’s leadership, aware that escaping U.S. sanctions is the only way to rescue its economy, is closely watching the U.S. presidential election next month.

In the meantime, authorities are at a loss for how to respond to the pandemic, according to the country’s own health minister.

“I saw on the street three or four days ago that 40% of passengers on a bus didn’t wear masks,” said Namaki in his first speech last week. “People gather and make lines for free food and no one comes to disperse them. … How can infections be controlled in this way?”

Twenty-four hours later, he was on state TV insisting that things were, in fact, under control.

___

Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.



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FBI warns American voter registration data has been obtained by Iran, Russia



File – Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe is pictured. (AP Photo/ Andrew Harnik)

OAN Newsroom
UPDATED 8:50 AM PT – Thursday, October 22, 2020

Federal officials sent a warning about national security after the FBI said Iran and Russia obtained voter registration data and are using the information to interfere with the upcoming presidential election.

In a press conference Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced that voters were being intimidated in order to cause political unrest with their personal information later stolen.

“First we have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and separately by Russia,” announced Ratcliffe. “This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine your confidence in American democracy.”

Ratcliffe went into further detail, stating Iran has been sending out fake emails to registered voters while posing as members of the Proud Boys group in an effort to fuel political tensions before November’s vote.

The national security officials went onto reassure the public by stating they will work swiftly to identify and disrupt these threats, while boosting up security for the sake of protecting the integrity of the presidential election.

RELATED: President Trump’s appeal to women ahead of the election





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Russia Poses Greater Election Threat Than Iran, Many U.S. Officials Say


Officials say Russia’s ability to change vote tallies nationwide would be difficult, given how disparate American elections are. The graver concern is the potential effect of any attack on a few key precincts in battleground states.

Russian hackers recently obtained access “in a couple limited cases, to election jurisdiction, an election-related network,” Christopher C. Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said on Thursday. But he was careful to note that the breaches had “nothing to do with the casting and counting” of votes.

The hackers, believed to be operating at the behest of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the F.S.B. — the successor agency to the Soviet-era K.G.B. — infiltrated dozens of state and local computer networks in recent weeks, according to officials and researchers. But Mr. Krebs said the attacks appeared to be “opportunistic” in nature, a scattershot break-in of vulnerable systems rather than an attempt to zero in on key battleground states.

But officials were alarmed by the combination of the targets, the timing — the attacks began less than two months ago — and the adversary, which is known for burrowing inside the supply chain of critical infrastructure that Russia may want to take down in the future.

The officials fear that Russia could change, delete or freeze voter registration or pollbook data, making it harder for voters to cast ballots, invalidating mail-in ballots or creating enough uncertainty to undermine results.

“It’s reasonable to assume any attempt at the election systems could be for the same purpose,” said John Hultquist, the director of threat analysis at FireEye, a security firm that has been tracking the Russian group’s foray into state and local systems. “This could be the reconnaissance for disruptive activity.”

Mr. Krebs said so far Russia was not as active as Iran, and its targeting was imprecise. “They’re broadly looking to scan for vulnerabilities, and they’re working opportunistically,” he said.



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Australia Post boss stood aside amid Cartier watch investigation; Canberra breaks 100-day COVID-free streak; Iran and Russia interfere with US election, FBI says; Victoria records five new cases, NSW one local case


Australia Post’s Chief Executive Christine Holgate will be asked to stand aside as an investigation is conducted into why the organisation spent $12,000 rewarding senior executives with Cartier watches.

During question time this afternoon, the Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Ms Holgate will be asked to suspend her duties after it was revealed in a Senate estimates hearing that the service gifted four $3000 watches to senior executives.

Ms Holgate said the watches were bought from a Melbourne store in October 2018 and were for people that needed “to be rewarded” for “an inordinate amount of work” they did in setting up personal banking within post office branches.

The watches were a gift from herself, the Chair and the board of Australia Post.



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FBI says Iran behind threatening emails sent to Florida Democrats


Iranian intelligence was responsible for a recent campaign of emails sent to intimidate Florida voters, the FBI announced Wednesday night, adding that Russia was also working to influence the election.

The emails, which ominously instructed Democratic voters in Florida to switch to the Republican Party, purported to come from the Proud Boys, the right-wing group of Trump supporters that became a flashpoint during the first presidential debate.

But the emails were actually “spoofed” and had been designed “to incite social unrest and damage President Trump,” said John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence. Ratcliffe did not explain how the emails were damaging to Trump, because they were urging Democrats to switch to the Republican Party.

Ratcliffe didn’t provide any evidence for the attribution.

Many states, including Florida, make voters’ information, including their names and party affiliations, easily accessible to members of the public who request it.

Both Iran and Russia had obtained some Americans’ voter registration information, Ratcliffe said.

In the same news conference, FBI Director Christopher Wray said there was still no way for Iranian or Russian intelligence to change Americans’ votes.

“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray said.

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Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian Mission to the U.N., denied that the country had taken any action to influence the U.S. election.

“Unlike the U.S., Iran does not interfere in other country’s elections,” he said in a statement late Wednesday. “The world has been witnessing U.S.’s own desperate public attempts to question the outcome of its own elections at the highest level. These accusations are nothing more than another scenario to undermine voter confidence in the security of the U.S. election and are absurd.”

Iran has increased its online influence operations in recent years, often following Russia’s playbook to create partisan news sites that support the Iranian government’s worldview — like opposition to Israel and Trump — with little traction.

But this operation, a more active trick to falsely accuse some of Trump’s most infamous supporters, represents a new front for Iranian operations, said John Hultquist, who heads intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity company Mandiant.

“This incident marks a fundamental shift in our understanding of Iran’s willingness to interfere in the democratic process,” Hultquist said in an email. “While many of their operations have been focused on promoting propaganda in pursuit of Iran’s interests, this incident is clearly aimed at undermining voter confidence.”

U.S. election officials have repeatedly said the measures the government has taken ahead of the 2020 election in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election will make this the most secure in modern history.





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Iran is poised to make a comeback … as a presidential priority


Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election, there is reason to expect that policy toward Iran will return to a place of privilege on the foreign policy agenda. Perhaps soon.

Among the indicators: the expiration of an international arms embargo on Iran over the weekend, recent advances in Iran’s nuclear program, and the prospect that under a President Joe Biden, the United States would return to the multilateral Iran nuclear deal.

Yet many staunch critics of the 2015 deal worry that Mr. Biden, looking to quickly rejoin the agreement, would squander the position of strength the Trump administration has developed vis-à-vis Iran through his “maximum pressure” policy.

“We must not throw the regime a lifeline [or] return to the policies of appeasement,” says Robert Joseph, special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation under President George W. Bush.

But others say the Iranians understand that the dire economic and political straits the regime is in mean they would have to compromise with whoever is in the White House in 2021.

“The Iranians know they’d have to make some concessions,” says Alex Vatanka at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “And that’s an opportunity.”

Iran – that burr under the saddle of U.S. presidents and presidential aspirants alike since 1979 – may not have much of an irritating presence in this year’s presidential campaign.

Indeed, with the focus on big domestic issues, including the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, no foreign policy topic is getting much traction.

But that doesn’t mean Iran is altogether absent, or that it’s not poised to come roaring back no matter who takes office in January. It could even happen sooner.

Several indicators suggest Iran could soon return to a place of privilege on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. These include the expiration of an international arms embargo on Iran over the weekend, recent advances in Iran’s nuclear program despite President Donald Trump’s sanctions-based “maximum pressure campaign,” and prospects under a potential Joe Biden presidency for the United States to return to the multilateral 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

But with a difference.

“There are a number of reasons to think Iran is poised to come back” to the agenda once the election is over, “but it’s not going to be the same debate, with the same focus on the nuclear issue to the exclusion of everything else, that we had five years ago,” says Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington.

For starters, “the big change looking over the last five years is that Iran has become so weak that it has become much easier for the Chinese – and the Russians – to use the Iranians as a pawn to undermine U.S. interests,” he says.

At the same time, the nuclear issue, while critical, no longer has a monopoly on what makes Iran a looming foreign policy concern for the U.S. “No matter who wins [the U.S. election] in November, the approach will no longer be limited to how many centrifuges [the Iranians] have,” Mr. Vatanka says. “It will have to be a much broader conversation,” including Iran’s regional activities – what the Trump administration calls “exporting revolution.”

On Sunday, a United Nations arms embargo the Trump administration said was critical to limiting Iran’s mischief in the region expired. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the U.S. position that the embargo remains in effect – and warned that the U.S. will sanction any company that sells arms to Tehran.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File

President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington May 8, 2018.

The U.S. position sets the stage for a damaging confrontation between the U.S. and some of its closest allies in Europe – the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – that remain parties to the formally titled Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. They insist that the U.S. withdrawal from the deal nullifies any U.S. say over its provisions.

Also promising Iran’s return to the international agenda is evidence of progress in the country’s nuclear program. Recent International Atomic Energy Agency reports indicate that Iran’s “breakout” time to building a nuclear weapon is just three or four months, in part based on estimates of stockpiled fissile material.

That estimate is down sharply from the one-year breakout time experts assessed when President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018.

In addition, last week a dissident group with a good track record exposing secret nuclear R&D facilities inside Iran reported the existence of what it said is a previously undisclosed military facility dedicated to Iran’s nuclear program. The National Council of Resistance of Iran said in Washington Friday that satellite imagery shows the facility, located in a military zone east of Tehran, has recently been expanded.

Even if Iran has not figured prominently in the presidential campaign, what has been said suggests stark differences between the policies of a second-term President Trump and those of a President Biden.

Moreover, those differences are also an indicator of the broad foreign policy strategies and goals each would pursue.

On Iran as well as on other issues, Mr. Trump would be expected to double down on sanctions and confrontation with allies to advance his foreign policy goals. Those goals for a second Trump administration would include more tightening of the screws on Tehran to force a return to negotiations and achieve what Mr. Trump insists would be a better deal.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, would likely return the U.S. to a multilateral route, seeking to quickly repair relations with key allies in an effort to address international challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change – and Iran’s advancing nuclear program.

Indeed, a Biden administration would likely seek to return the U.S. to the JCPOA – the question would be under what conditions. Some Biden aides have indicated that a Biden administration would condition a U.S. return to the nuclear deal on certain adjustments.

Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, speaks with the media during his visit to the water nuclear reactor at Arak, Iran, Dec. 23, 2019.

Jake Sullivan, a former national security adviser to Mr. Biden when he was vice president, said in an August webinar that a President Biden would follow the same “formula” used by the Obama administration – which he described as “leverage diplomacy backed by pressure” – to coax the Iranians back to the negotiating table.

The goal, he added, would be a new deal with Iran that makes “progress, not just on the core nuclear issues but on some of the other challenges as well,” including Iran’s missile development and support for regional proxies.

Some Republican national security experts say a Biden administration would be wise to use the “leverage” Mr. Trump’s policies have built up on a number of key foreign policy issues, including Iran.

Through frequent recourse to sanctions and threats to end security guarantees, “Trump has generated considerable leverage over adversaries and allies alike,” including Iran, writes Richard Fontaine, former foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain, in the October issue of Foreign Affairs. “A Biden administration would … do well to use some [of the leverage] Trump would leave behind.”

Nevertheless, many staunch critics of the JCPOA worry that Mr. Biden, looking to quickly rejoin the nuclear deal, would squander the position of strength the Trump administration has developed vis-à-vis Iran.

“We must not throw the regime a lifeline [or] return to the policies of appeasement,” says Robert Joseph, who was special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation under President George W. Bush. 

But others say the Iranians understand that the dire economic and political straits the regime is in mean they would have to compromise with whoever is in the White House in 2021.

“The Iranians know they’d have to make some concessions on the regional front, and maybe even on the bad things they are doing at home to their own people,” says MEI’s Mr. Vatanka. “And that’s an opportunity.”



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Iran arms embargo expires, opens nation to purchase and sale of foreign weapons


FILE – In this Nov. 13, 2012 file photo, an Iranian clergyman stands next to missiles and army troops, during a manoeuvre, in an undisclosed location in Iran. (Majid Asgaripour/Mehr News Agency via AP, File)

OAN Newsroom
UPDATED 3:20 PM PT – Sunday, October 18, 2020

A 13-year-old United Nations arms embargo against Iran came to an end this weekend, giving the Middle Eastern country to the ability to purchase foreign weapons. The embargo, which expired on Sunday, came as part of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Iranian officials have called the ban’s lift a “momentous day.”

Iran has said it doesn’t have plans to purchase any new weapons, but the country does have the ability to purchase upgraded weapon systems or sell weaponry it produces.

“What Tehran will be looking for will be maybe cooperation with countries like Russia and China,” stated political analyst Abbas Aslani. “When it comes to buying maybe some arms from those countries, Iran might be thinking of buying some missile defense system, like S-400 from Russia.”

In the meantime, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the U.S. is prepared to sanction any entity that contributes to the sale of arms to or from Iran.

MORE NEWS: Israel, U.S. Delegates Board Flight To Formalize Diplomacy With Bahrain





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U.S. threatens sanctions after U.N. arms embargo against Iran expires


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference to announce the Trump administration’s restoration of sanctions on Iran, at the U.S. State Department in Washington, September 21, 2020.

Patrick Semansky | Pool | Reuters

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Sunday that the United States will slap sanctions on any individual or entity that assists Iran’s weapons program, a move that will likely further aggravate tensions between Washington and Tehran.

“For the past 10 years, countries have refrained from selling weapons to Iran under various UN measures. Any country that now challenges this prohibition will be very clearly choosing to fuel conflict and tension over promoting peace and security,” Pompeo said in a Sunday statement.

“Any nation that sells weapons to Iran is impoverishing the Iranian people by enabling the regime’s diversion of funds away from the people and toward the regime’s military aims,” he added.

The threat comes after a decade-long U.N. arms embargo against Iran officially expired Sunday as part of the nuclear deal agreed with world powers in 2015.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry announced that the “Islamic Republic of Iran may procure any necessary arms and equipment from any source without any legal restrictions and solely based on its defensive needs.” However, Tehran said it has no intention to go on a buying spree of conventional arms.

Under the U.N. arms embargo, the export of “certain conventional arms to Iran” and the “procurement of any arms or related materiel from Iran” is in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution and is subject to sanctions.

However, the U.N. Security Council refused in August to support a U.S. effort to extend the arms embargo against Iran. China and Russia voted against Washington’s efforts, while even close U.S. allies such as Britain, France and Germany abstained. Only the U.S. and the Dominican Republic voted for an extension.

In response, the United States unilaterally re-imposed U.N. sanctions on Tehran last month through a snapback process, which other U.N. Security Council members have previously said Washington does not have the authority to execute because it withdrew from the nuclear deal in in 2018.

The same week that the U.S. reimposed the U.N. sanctions the Trump administration upped the ante even more. Pompeo, flanked by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, said the administration would sanction Iran’s entire Ministry of Defense.

“No matter who you are, if you violate the U.N. arms embargo on Iran, you risk sanctions,” Pompeo said in an address on Sept. 21. “Our actions today are a warning that should be heard worldwide,” he added.

Esper followed on Pompeo’s remarks and said the Pentagon was “ready to respond to future Iranian aggression” and called on Tehran to “act like a normal country.”

“We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies and partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior. In doing so, we will protect our people and our interests and maintain the security of like-minded nations across the region,” Esper added.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have mounted after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement in 2018, calling it “the worst deal ever.”

The 2015 accord lifted sanctions on Iran that crippled its economy and cut its oil exports roughly in half. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran accepted limits on its nuclear program until the terms expire in 2025.

Trump has previously said that the U.S. wants to reach a broader deal with Iran that puts stricter limits on its nuclear and ballistic missile work and suppresses the regime’s role in regional proxy wars. Tehran has refused to negotiate while U.S. sanctions remain in place.

Following Washington’s exit from the nuclear deal, other signatories of the pact ⁠— France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China ⁠— tried to keep the agreement alive. 

Earlier this year, a U.S. strike that killed Iran’s top military commander triggered the regime to further scale back compliance with the international nuclear pact. In January, Iran said it would no longer limit its uranium enrichment capacity or nuclear research.



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Russia, Poland and Iran each hit new COVID-19 records


Even Pope Francis was subject to new coronavirus rules, staying at a safe distance from well-wishers at his weekly audience on Wednesday.

In Lisbon, football fans were unsurprised after Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive, saying it simply showed everyone was at risk of getting infected – and famous athletes were no exception.

The Portuguese government is looking to tighten the law to make face masks compulsory in crowded outdoor areas.Credit:AP

Tougher measures will be imposed from Thursday in Portugal to contain the spread, including stricter limits on gatherings and heavier penalties for rule-breaking establishments.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa is also pushing for a nationwide face mask law and the compulsory use of the country’s tracing app in some workforces.

Portugal, a nation of just over 10 million people, initially won praise for its quick response to the pandemic, recording a comparatively low 91,193 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2117 deaths, but cases have crept back up.

Impossible choices

Major European economies such as Germany, England and France have so far resisted pressure to close schools, but in Germany, politicians are debating whether to extend the Christmas-New Year school break to reduce contagion.

The Netherlands has returned to partial lockdown, closing bars and restaurants, but keeping schools open.

The Czech Republic, with Europe’s worst rate per capita, has shifted schools to distance learning and plans to call up thousands of medical students. Hospitals are cutting non-urgent medical procedures to free up beds.

“Sometimes we are at the edge of crying,” said Lenka Krejcova, a head nurse at Slany hospital near Prague, as builders hurried to turn a general ward into a COVID-19 department.

The United Kingdom, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of Europe’s new cases in the week to October 11, according to the World Health Organisation.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is just one European leader coming under intense pressure to halt the spread of COVID-19.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is just one European leader coming under intense pressure to halt the spread of COVID-19.Credit:AP

French President Emmanuel Macron was expected to unveil further restrictions on Wednesday, with local media reporting that city curfews were under consideration.

“Curfew … this is a word we haven’t heard in a long time,” shrugged pensioner Francis Boutry at a Paris market, recalling the 1954-62 Algerian war. “What can we do? We have to stop this virus somehow.”

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces opposition calls for another national lockdown in England, but has so far resisted.

Hospital admissions, however, are climbing and field hospitals constructed in the spring are once more being readied.

Britain reported 19,724 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, a rise of 2490 from the day before, and a daily death toll of 137, compared to Tuesday’s 143.

Northern Ireland has already announced it will close schools for two weeks and restaurants for four, while the Welsh government said it would enact a law to prevent residents from high-risk areas of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland from visiting.

In Spain, authorities in Catalonia have ordered bars and restaurants to close for 15 days and limited the numbers of people allowed in shops.

In Belgium, with Europe’s second worst infection rate per capita, hospitals must now reserve a quarter of their beds for COVID-19 patients.

‘We are on the brink of disaster’

Poland is ramping up training for nurses and could consider setting up military field hospitals for coronavirus patients, as daily reported cases hit a record 6526 on Wednesday, officials said.

“I don’t have any good information. We are on the brink of disaster,” said Polish immunologist Pawel Grzesiowski.

He said Poland should be doing more testing, closing schools and supporting doctors in their fight against the pandemic. Instead, he said, the government was trying to blame doctors for the difficult situation.

Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin said on Twitter earlier this week that some doctors were refusing to join coronavirus teams.

Health authorities say Poland has enough hospital beds and respirators for now to tackle the pandemic but localised shortages cannot be ruled out.

The country of 38 million has recorded 141,804 confirmed coronavirus cases so far and 3217 deaths, with the largest cities of Warsaw and Krakow seeing fast increases.

As of Wednesday, COVID-19 patients occupied 6084 hospital beds and were using 467 ventilators out of around 1000 available overall, compared with 5669 and 421 respectively a day earlier.

Poland’s ruling nationalists prided themselves on acting swiftly and containing the pandemic in the spring, when the government launched strict curbs on social life, closing schools and shopping centres, among other measures.

But the opposition and some doctors have accused the cabinet of not preparing the health system for a second wave and a fresh spike in COVID-19 cases.

Russia sees record daily caseload

On Wednesday, Russia’s coronavirus taskforce said that it had recorded 14,231 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, the most of any day since the pandemic began. In the same period, 239 people died, it said, bringing the death toll to 23,205.

Although the number of new infections has been steadily rising in recent days, the Russian authorities have said they see no need to impose any lockdowns or restrictions on economic activity.

Home to nearly 13 million people, Moscow has been the area of the country hardest-hit by the pandemic, reporting more than 4500 new infections.

Sergei Sobyanin, the city’s mayor, said students from grades six to 11 would be taking online classes for a two-week period starting on Monday, while younger students would continue attending school as usual.

For the past two weeks students have been on a holiday designed to prevent them from contracting the virus and taking it home.

Sobyanin said older students would be studying online at home because they accounted for two-thirds of children infected with the virus.

“The decisions that we have made today are not easy but are simply necessary taking into account both the epidemiological situation and the need for schoolchildren to receive a quality education,” he wrote on his website.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said the coronavirus situation in the country remained extremely strained and that many people were not following all safety guidelines.

Since the start of the pandemic, Russia has recorded 1,340,409 infections, the fourth largest number of cases in the world behind the United States, India and Brazil.

Italy struggles to contain the virus

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In Italy, there were 7332 new coronavirus infections recorded on Wednesday, the country’s highest ever daily tally and steeply up from 5901 on Tuesday.

There were also 43 COVID-related deaths against 41 the day before – far fewer than at the height of the pandemic in March and April when a daily peak of more than 900 deaths was reached.

Before Wednesday, the highest daily tally of new cases had been reported on March 21, in the middle of a nationwide lockdown, with 6557 cases. On that same day 793 people died.

Although Italy’s daily deaths remain relatively low, the number of people in intensive care with the virus has risen steadily.

Italy was the first country in Europe to be slammed by COVID-19 and has the second-highest death toll in the continent, with 36,289 fatalities since the outbreak flared in February, according to official figures.

Thanks to one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, the government managed to get the contagion under control by the summer, but infections have soared again in the last few weeks.

Nonetheless, Italy is still recording significantly fewer daily cases than France, Spain and Britain.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was determined to avoid a new general lockdown just as the economy was recovering from the last one.

However, some of the country’s most prominent scientists say closing down the country again may be the only way to stop infections continuing to spiral.

Iranian virus death toll hits record high

The bleak statistics in Europe were on Wednesday mirrored in some areas of the Middle East.

For the third time in a week, Iran marked its highest single-day record for new deaths and infections from the coronavirus, with 279 people killed and 4830 new patients.

On Wednesday, Iran marked its highest single-day record for new deaths and infections, while Russia and Poland registered their highest daily reported cases.

On Wednesday, Iran marked its highest single-day record for new deaths and infections, while Russia and Poland registered their highest daily reported cases.Credit:AP

Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari made the announcement as Iran struggles with the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with more than 513,000 confirmed cases. It has seen over 29,300 deaths and 414,800 recoveries since announcing its first cases in February. Iran has a population of more than 83 million.

In recent weeks, Iran has seen daily death tolls spike to their highest-ever levels, sparking increasing concern even as government officials continue to resist a total lockdown for fear of cratering the economy, which has been hit hard by US sanctions.

On Wednesday, Iran announced a travel ban to and from five major cities, including the capital of Tehran and the holy city of Mashhad, to prevent infections spreading. Kianoush Jahanpour, a Health Ministry spokesman, told state TV that the travel ban aimed to reduce risks ahead of a religious holiday on Saturday. Iran’s weekend is Thursdays and Fridays.

The coronavirus has spread to some of the highest levels of Iran’s government, many of whom are older men. Among those recently infected is the head of the country’s atomic energy organisation, while Iran’s vice-president in charge of budget and planning also tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday.

Reuters, AP

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Iran shatters its single-day record for virus deaths, cases


Iran has announced its highest single-day death toll from the coronavirus, for the second day in a row, with 272 people killed

And yet enforcement and measures like contact-tracing in the country of 80 million remain a challenge. Those who disobey face fines of just 500,000 riyals, or $1.60, roughly the price of a burger downtown. Many residents, tired of staying home, now ignore the rules about masks and social distancing to pack indoor cafes and restaurants. As residents defy coronavirus precautions and the government resists a lockdown to salvage its economy, Iran’s caseload is skyrocketing.

Iran emerged early in the pandemic as a global epicenter of the virus and has since seen the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with more than 500,000 confirmed cases and 28,800 deaths. Leaders first played down the virus’s risks and, as hospitals filled up, international experts suspected Iran was hiding the true number of infections and deaths. Authorities have since admitted that the outbreak is more severe than reported, with a recent parliamentary report putting the number of infections at “eight to 10 times” higher than official numbers.

Movement restrictions this spring somewhat checked the spread of the disease. Then the government swiftly reopened the country, desperate to boost its stricken economy. Since June, the case count has steadily increased — and spiked to new heights in recent weeks.

Long before the virus hit, Iran’s economy was ailing, pummeled by U.S. sanctions after the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers. As the death toll soared on Sunday, the nation’s currency plunged to its lowest level ever, following the U.S. administration’s decision last week to blacklist Iranian banks that had so far escaped the bulk of re-imposed American sanctions.

As in the White House, where U.S. President Donald Trump and a growing circle of his aides and staff recently tested positive for the coronavirus, the disease has spread to the highest levels of Iran’s government, even killing a senior adviser of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A number of Cabinet ministers have contracted the virus, as well as top officials including senior Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar. The head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who had urged the public not to panic over its spread was among the first officials to contract the virus in late February. On Sunday, local media reported the head of the country’s atomic energy organization and the country’s vice president in charge of budget and planning had also tested positive for the virus.

Iran’s initial outbreak coincided with major political events — the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought its clerical leadership to power, as well as parliamentary elections in which the government desperately sought to boost turnout. Religious considerations also played a role in the Shiite theocracy as authorities declined for weeks to close shrines where the faithful touch or kiss the tombs’ protective bars.

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Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.



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