Iran’s armed forces will clear all cities within 24 hours to contain the spread of coronavirus that has killed more than 500 people, the official IRNA news agency has reported.
The extraordinary measure was announced by Iran’s military chief of staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri, who said: “Clearing shops, streets and roads will be carried out in the next 24 hours as a national decision.”
He added that this would be carried out in coordination with the Interior Ministry and provincial governor general.
The Basij – the paramilitary branch of the feared Islamic Revolution Guards Cops (IRGC) – medical students, conscripts with medical expertise and retired health workers, meanwhile, will be drafted in to the efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak, which has so far killed 514 people and infected nearly 12,000 more.
General Baqeri said that a scheme to spot people suspected of carrying the virus will be carried out in 10 days.
Iran is one of the countries worst hit by the deadly virus which has infected nearly 130,000 people worldwide and caused more than 4,800 deaths.
The majority are in China, Italy and Iran where state TV said the official death toll on Friday had now surged to 514 amid 11,364 confirmed cases.
The outbreak in Iran is so severe that satellite imagery taken on 1 March by the private space technology company Maxar Technologies showed what looked like mass graves being dug in trenches outside Qom, Iran’s religious capital and epicentre of the Iranian outbreak.
Anger has also mounted over the government’s handling of the crisis.
MP Bahram Parsai on Friday called for an investigation into the Civil Aviation Organisation’s decision to refuse to stop flights from China even after Covid-19 began spreading across the country.
He also called for a probe into the actions of Mahan Air, affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, saying it “lied” about transporting only medical equipment, and not passengers, to Iran.
“They caused massive, irreparable physical and financial damage to the country. The national aviation organisation, which refused to stop flights to and from China, along with Mahan Air are definitely the primary suspects,” Khabar Online quoted MP Bahram Parsai as saying.
“Our country, like many other countries, was free from these infections,” he added.
Iran implemented new measures on Friday shutting down the major Shia religious site of Shah Cheragh, a mosque and funerary monument in the southern city of Shiraz as well as the metro in the central city of Isfahan and a traditional bazaar in the western city of Zanjan.
It came as several Middle Eastern countries ratcheted up their responses to the pandemic.
In Israel, an embattled Benjamin Netanyahu urged his chief political rival Benny Gantz to join forces and form an emergency government to curb the coronavirus outbreak there and “save the lives of tens of thousands”.
Israel has adopted some of the most stringent measures to contain Covid-19, effectively sealing off its borders and, together with the Palestinian authorities, locking down the West Bank and Gaza.
So far 126 people have tested positive while more than 20,000 people are in self-quarantine. A further 35 have been diagnosed in the West Bank.
Likening the coronavirus to the Spanish Flu in 1918 which killed as many as 50 million people worldwide, Mr Netanyahu called for an “emergency national unity government, without hesitations” for a limited time adding ”together we will save tens of thousands of citizens”.
Mr Gantz, the country’s former army chief and head of the centrist alliance Blue and White party, spoke to Mr Netanyahu Thursday night and urged “their two parties’ negotiating teams meet as quickly as possible”. So far, though, no agreement has been made.
Israel has limped through the past year with a caretaker government following three inconclusive elections after which no side has been able to form a big enough coalition to sweep the 61 seats of the 120-seat Knesset needed to rule.
The last vote on 2 March also showed no obvious winner.
At the heart of the deadlock is the reluctance of several parties including Blue and White to join forces with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud while he is the party chief and premier.
Mr Netanyahu is due to be in court in the coming days to stand trial across three corruption cases.
Without a proper government, the country has been able to form a proper budget or push through specific legislation.
Many fear this could hurt Israel’s ability to stop the virus and so sides have been pushed to hammer out a compromise.
In a bid to stem the virus, Israel barred foreigners from entering the country unless they can prove they can self-isolate for two weeks, effectively shutting off the country.
All Israelis are required to go into self-isolation when they return home from any destination.
Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem meanwhile said services would continue to be held in the Holy Land but moved to limit indoor gatherings after the Israeli Health Ministry said they should not exceed 100 people.
At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site where Jews can pray, authorities are set to limit entrance to an enclosed area and set up tents that accommodate up to 100 people.
The Waqf authorities, which manage the Islamic edifices on Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount meanwhile, disinfected the Al-Aqsa compound.
On Wednesday Lebanon also ratcheted up efforts by officially banning all entry and exit to and from Italy, Iran, South Korea and China, and is giving Lebanese nationals and their families four days to return from France, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Germany, Spain and the UK. After this, all entry to and exit from those countries will also be banned.
However, on the same day the ban was issued, a flight from Iran was able to land at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, drawing the fury of many Lebanese on social media.