Coronavirus: Iran reopens mosques against Iranian medical expert advice

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Iran should not yet reopen mosques at this critical time in its coronavirus epidemic, said Iranian physician Dr. Kamiar Alaei, following the reopening of some mosques in the country.

The Iranian government closed mosques in mid-March, but reversed its decision on Tuesday, temporarily opening mosques for the Islamic holy night of Laylat al-Qadr, which commemorates the Quran being revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.

“No mosque should reopen right now as COVID-19 cases are increasing again, after a temporary decrease,” said Dr. Alaei, co-founder of Iran’s first center for HIV/AIDS cases and drug users, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

After reporting 45 new COVID-19 deaths on Monday, Iranian officials warned of a setback in containing the country’s outbreak if health guidelines were not fully observed by the public. The next day, the government reopened some mosques for Laylat al-Qadr.

“Mosques should only open when the trend has consistently decreased for two weeks based on accurate data, at least in the targeted cities,” Dr. Alaei added.

Over 110,000 coronavirus cases and 6,733 related deaths have been recorded in the Islamic Republic. Some parts of the country, such as the southwestern province of Khuzestan, are reporting a rising trend in coronavirus infections and deaths.

Since mosques are in closed settings, reopening them puts Iran at risk for a second coronavirus outbreak, which can be observed three weeks later, according to Dr. Alaei.

“In mosques people sit and stand next to each other for joint praying, and may engage in handshaking or reading holy or prayer books. This may increase the risk of transmission,” he said.

Dr. Alaei advised the country to open step-by-step and that the first stage of reopening be followed by a two-week monitoring and waiting period to ensure case counts do not again spike.

“If the cases decrease consistently or do not increase, then the government can go to the next step. But definitely, opening the mosques is not the first step,” he said.

Iran’s COVID-19 risk classification under scrutiny

Iran reopened mosques in 132 cities last week in “white” zones, areas characterized by the government as being “low-risk” for COVID-19, according to Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency.

The government uses a color-coded system to classify the novel coronavirus risks of different areas of the country - an assessment that begs many questions, according to Dr. Alaei.

“The first question is how the government has determined and distinguished with adequate confidence the different risks between cities? The second, how will the government ensure people do not move between low, moderate, or high-risk cities, such as traveling for some religious ceremonies?” asked Dr. Alaei.

Iran’s health ministry has said worshippers must wear masks and gloves while visiting mosques and can only stay for a limit of 30 minutes during prayer times.

Iran’s decision to reopen mosques is an anomaly among other Middle Eastern countries, which have closed mosques and asked people to pray at home during the holy month of Ramadan. Saudi Arabia has suspended all public prayers at mosques and in the United Arab Emirates, mosques remain closed.

Lebanon reopened mosques for Friday prayers on May 8, but on Tuesday ordered a four-day lockdown following a spike in infections.

Iran, which has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in the Middle East behind Turkey, has recently relaxed other measures put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Schools in the country will reopen next week and a ban on shopping centers has been lifted.