No Nowruz? Iran braces for major changes to New Year celebrations

No Nowruz? Iran braces for major changes to New Year celebrations
A speech for Iran's major celebratory Nowruz event will be cancelled this year due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the country, the supreme leader said.
4 min read
10 March, 2020
Nowruz is a major celebration in Iran which marks the start of spring [Getty]
Iran is bracing for its annual Nowruz celebrations this month, though the new year spring festivities could look a lot different this year.

On Tuesday, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cancelled an annual speech marking the start of the Persian new year, as the country's death toll from the novel coronavirus continued to mount.

"The ceremony of the speech of the supreme leader, which takes place every year at the sacred mausoleum of Imam Reza... will not take place this year" and Khamenei will not travel to the city of Mashhad, the statement said.

With a death toll of 291 as of Tuesday, Iran is one of the worst hit countries, after China and Italy. The total number of cases in Iran are now 8,042, the health ministry announced on Tuesday, noting 2,731 have recovered from the infection.

The speech given by the supreme leader in Mashhad each year usually sets out the country's key objectives for the 12 months to come.

Read also: Bootleg booze touted as 'corona cure' kills dozens in Iran

The statement added that the decision to cancel this year was taken "due to the spread of the coronavirus and the strict advice of medical and health experts and officials to avoid gatherings and travel... to slow the spread of the illness".

Mashhad is a key Shia holy city and is also Khamenei's birthplace, as well as the capital of the Khorasan Razavi province.

According to the most recent health ministry figures, 183 people have been infected by the virus in the province.

There are currently over 8,000 confirmed cases in Iran spread across all 31 of the country's provinces.

The Persian new year - to be celebrated this year on 20 March - is a major event in Iran and is often a time when people travel and visit family.

But in light of the spread of coronavirus, several provinces have issued orders to close hotels and other tourist accommodation to discourage people from travelling.

No major public gatherings or festivities take place in Iran to mark the festival, though many visit families across the country to celebrate. 

"The impact of coronavirus will be felt more over the new year period because it will not be business as usual," Iranian journalist Fereshteh Sadeghi told The New Arab.

"People have already been advised against travelling, additionally people will not be allowed to gather at the shrines at the turn of the year and various provinces have told fellow Iranian citizens that their cities and provinces will not host visitors from other cities." 

Sadeghi said that some popular tourist destinations such as Qeshm, Kish islands and the port of Chabahar are under quarantine.

"A massive part of the Nowruz festivities is to take a family holiday somewhere inside the country; so the hope is that people will listen," Sadeghi added.

"Another part of the festivities is meeting with close and distant relatives. But many say they have to restrict their visits to only very immediate relatives over fear of the spread of virus," she added.

The government has been scrambling to contain the virus since it reported its first cases in mid-February, shutting down schools and universities as well as urging Iranians to stay at home.

Read also: Outrage after Israeli rabbi claims God sent coronavirus as punishment for homosexuality

With 1,945 cases, the capital Tehran remains the province with the most cases, according to the official.

The second worst-hit province with 712 confirmed cases is Qom, the Shia pilgrimage city south of Tehran, where the Islamic Republic's first cases were reported.

The number of cases of novel coronavirus worldwide has crossed 110,000 people in 100 countries and territories with more than 3,800 dead. 

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China, where the virus first emerged late last year, remains the most affected country with more than 80,000 cases, but authorities have enacted strict measures to prevent its spread. Experts have expressed hope that the Chinese outbreak has peaked.

Governments are scrambling to respond to the outbreak with countries across the Middle East, cancelling public gatherings, restricting public access to sporting events and closing schools.

Many of Iran's neighbours have imposed restrictions on travel to and from the Islamic Republic.

On Monday, some 70,000 prisoners in Iran were temporarily released from jail, the head of the judiciary said, as part of measures to contain the deadly outbreak.

The release of inmates would continue "to the point where it doesn't create insecurity in society", Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi said, according to the Mizan news site of the judiciary.

No further details were provided, including when the inmates would return to prison, where rumours have suggested the virus has since spread.

Last month, the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman jailed in Tehran's Evin prison, said she believes she has contracted coronavirus.

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