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In Iran, government distrust rises amid deadly outbreak of novel coronavirus

The global spread of novel coronavirus has hit Iran hard. Nearly two dozen members of the nation’s parliament as well as its director of emergency services are infected with the illness, and a third government official died from the virus Tuesday. Special correspondent Reza Sayah reports from Tehran about how the country is handling the crisis -- and where they are placing blame.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the coronavirus spreads globally, few places have been as hard-hit as Iran.

    Twenty-three members of the Parliament are sick. The director of emergency services is infected. And a third Iranian government official died from the virus today.

    Special correspondent Reza Sayah tells us from Tehran how the country is handling it, and whom they blame for their travails.

  • Reza Sayah:

    At a popular gym in the heart of Tehran, workout music blares, but the weight room is nearly empty.

  • Mustafa (through translator):

    People are a little scared. Attendance has definitely dropped. We have seen at least a 50 percent drop.

  • Reza Sayah:

    On Tehran's Iran's usually bustling streets, the bumper-to-bumper traffic has suddenly vanished.

    Everywhere you look, surgical masks and reminders of personal hygiene. At offices throughout the capital, desk after desk empty.

  • Mehrab Kaboli (through translator):

    Tehran is frozen. It's like we're stunned.

  • Reza Sayah:

    What stunned this megacity and much of Iran is the coronavirus. The outbreak hit here two weeks ago. The numbers of people infected and the death toll have climbed ever since.

    Today, Iran is one of the global epicenters of the virus. Iran's Ministry of Health confirms more than 2,300 cases in all but four of Iran's 30 provinces. The death toll remains the highest outside of China.

    Everywhere you look, people are trying to figure out how to contain the virus.

    All right, we're entering maybe the most posh shopping center here in Tehran. And, as you can see, you have volunteers taking everyone's temperature here in their indoor parking complex.

    So, my temperature reading is 35.5. Centigrade, which is normal.

    Up until a few weeks ago, Mohammad Reza Vakiyan was a parking toll collector here at the Palladium Shopping Center. Never did he think he'd be wearing a lab coat and taking temperatures.

  • Mohammad Reza Vakiyan (through translator):

    Hopefully, this will soon past, and no one else faces any problems.

  • Faezeh Khorasani:

    I sometimes even have nightmares about corona.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Faezeh Khorasani is an English teacher.

  • Faezeh Khorasani:

    Welcome to the class. Happy to see you.

  • Reza Sayah:

    She teaches her students online from home these days, because, like the rest of Tehran's schools, hers is shut down.

  • Faezeh Khorasani:

    I feel a bit worried, and I can say scared. You came here, you put the key chains on the counter. I was thinking, oh, my God, I should remember to disinfect that.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Amir Parvandar doesn't have much trust either. He's looking for protective masks for his family, but he can't find a pharmacy that has them in stock.

  • Amir Parvandar (through translator):

    This is the result of the chronic weakness of the management of our country.

    Unfortunately, when officials come and speak on television, it seems as if everything is great, but that's not the case. When you lose people's trust, even when you tell the truth, people won't believe you.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Many here wanted to believe Iran's deputy health minister when he appeared on television. In a heavy sweat, he said the outbreak was under control. One day later, he was diagnosed with coronavirus, one of several government officials who've tested positive.

    The growing number of cases have led some to question if the government is hiding the spread of the virus. It didn't help that,just two months ago, it took the government three days before acknowledging it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 167 on board.

    But many Iranians say, in the struggle to contain the coronavirus, their government is not solely to blame. They say crippling U.S. sanctions against Iran have put severe pressure on the country's public health sector.

    The Trump administration insists sanctions don't target humanitarian trade. But human rights groups say banking restrictions limit Iran's ability to buy humanitarian goods.

    Tehran pharmacist Ali Mazlomi says sanctions have made it impossible to purchase vital medical products.

  • Mohammad Ali Mazlomi (through translator):

    The sanctions put in place by America, without a doubt, it's the people who are paying the price. They are the most vulnerable.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Last week, the U.S. Treasury eased some humanitarian trade restrictions against Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was ready to help Iran fight the outbreak.

    In his weekly press conference streamed online due to the coronavirus, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman's picture was fuzzy, but his message to Washington was clear.

  • Seyyed Abbas Mousavi (through translator):

    We have doubts about the United States' intention, and we do not count on its help.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Many Iranians feel the same.

    A couple of days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, we care about the Iranian people. We want to help them.

    What was your reaction when you heard that?

  • Faezeh Khorasani:


  • Reza Sayah:


  • Faezeh Khorasani:


  • Mehrab Kaboli:

    America is one of the root causes of this problem. I have no expectations at all that America will help solve problems that America itself played a key role in creating. No, I don't have any expectations.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Tehran-based economic analyst Saeed Laylaz says U.S. sanctions are proof that the Trump administration doesn't care about the Iranian people.

    Mike Pompeo said, we're worried about the Iranian people.

    Why are you laughing?

  • Saeed Laylaz:

    Because he make joke. I don't — I know that he's lying. He's a big liar. Mr. Pompeo doesn't like Iranian nation.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Laylaz says the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign has escalated tensions between Washington and Iran, crippled Iran's economy, and led to a sweeping victory by anti-U.S. hard-liners in Iran's recent parliamentary elections.

  • Saeed Laylaz:

    This current radicalism which you are seeing in Iran, radicals who are governing the country, who are occupying Parliament, next coming Parliament and so on, directly is a fruit or consequence of United States' sanction against Iran.

  • Reza Sayah:

    But, somehow, many Iranians remain hopeful for better days.

  • Amir Parvandar (through translator):

    I hope, one day, these two countries can be friends. This is our wish.

    I am serious. Life, after all, is for happiness and peace.

  • Reza Sayah:

    With challenges mounting, amid what could be a deadly pandemic, happiness and peace for many Iranians will have to wait.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Reza Sayah in Tehran.

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