Middle East

Fears mount as Iranian 'lick the shrine' videos go viral amid coronavirus outbreak

Some of the images shared on social media. Source: Twitter

Videos which have reportedly emerged from Iran's coronavirus epicentre have caused concern about the country's response to the outbreak.

Online videos are being shared in Iran of people licking and kissing a Muslim shrine to show they are not scared of the country's growing coronavirus outbreak.

The videos, which have reportedly emerged from Iran's coronavirus epicentre of Qom, show several devotees spreading misinformation about the virus, with some seemingly forcing their children to take part.

Trying to prevent panic, the government has not locked down Qom but has imposed broad restrictions such as limitations on who is allowed in and out of the city.

Some Iranians are defying advice by the Health Ministry to avoid touching or kissing surfaces of certain shrines, a common practice for pilgrims.

"There are people who say that this shrine spreads coronavirus. I'm here to lick the tomb so that I can fall ill. This way, I've removed the virus. You can come and visit," one man says in a video.

One video shows a child licking a shrine while an adult says, "bravo to this young child for licking all the doors ... We're the ones who will get the virus and our children".

In another, a man says, "in sacred temples like these, there's no room for viruses, germs or diseases. This is a place of heaven. This is a place of cure. There's no disease here."

Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad has been sharing the videos via Twitter, with harsh criticism of the Iranian regime.

"Not only is this child abuse, but it's also helping the virus spread [around] Iran and to other countries," she said.

"Iran's authorities are endangering lives of Iranians and the world."

Questions around death toll

The Iranian government has faced criticism in its handling of coronavirus, which is one of the worst outbreaks outside China.

While Iran has acknowledged 54 deaths among 978 confirmed infections nationwide - with a vice-president and deputy health minister among those testing positive - unofficial tolls are much higher.

The London-based BBC Persian service says 210 people have been killed by the virus; a figure it says it collated from hospital sources.

The report was immediately dismissed by Iran's health ministry.

The People's Mujahedin, an exiled organisation that Tehran considers a terrorist group, claims that the epidemic has killed "more than 300" while infecting up to 15,000 across the country.

Six epidemiologists based in Canada used a mathematical model to estimate that there have been more than 18,000 cases on Iranian soil.

A pedestrian wearing a face mask crosses a street in northern Tehran.
A pedestrian wearing a face mask crosses a street in northern Tehran.
AAP

This week, Reporters Without Borders added its own criticism of Tehran's handling of the outbreak, accusing the government of stifling news on the spread of the virus.

"The authorities insist they have the situation under control but they have ... obstructed journalists trying to cover the story," the media advocacy group said in a statement.

Some doctors and nurses told Reuters that hospitals in Tehran, Qom and Rasht city were overloaded.

"Hospitals are full of infected people. We hear about hundreds of deaths," said a doctor in Tehran, who asked not to be named.

"We need more hospitals. The death toll will rise."

Additional reporting: Reuters, AFP

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