DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Wikipedia’s Farsi-language website appears to be disrupted in Iran after a close confidant to the country’s supreme leader died of the new coronavirus, an activist group said Tuesday, as the Islamic Republic suffers the highest death rate from the epidemic outside of China.
The advocacy group NetBlocks linked the death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi to the disruption, though Iranian officials and its state media did not immediately acknowledge it. Authorities face increasing criticism from the Iranian public over the outbreak amid concerns the number of cases from the virus may be higher than currently reported.
After downplaying the coronavirus as recently as last week, Iranian authorities now say they have plans to potentially mobilize 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus.
Concern over the outbreak now stretches to Iran’s top leadership — some of whom have fallen ill from the virus.
The elderly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even wore gloves while planting a tree to mark Iran’s upcoming arbor day.
“Whatever helps public health and prevents the spread of the disease is good and what helps to spread it is sin,” Khamenei said Tuesday.
NetBlocks described the disruption to accessing Farsi Wikipedia as being nationwide, saying its technical testing suggests the online encyclopedia is being blocked by the same mechanism used to block Twitter and Facebook. Those social media websites have been banned since Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election and Green Movement protests.
Some Iranians said they couldn’t access Wikipedia’s Farsi website since Monday night. Others said they could, including through the site’s mobile-friendly pages.
“The new restrictions come as Iran faces a growing crisis following the loss of senior state figures to coronavirus and a spate of criticism and misinformation have spread through social media,” NetBlocks said in its analysis.
The Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees the volunteer-edited encyclopedia, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. NetBlocks previously reported internet disruptions affecting Iran in recent days and users across the Islamic Republic have reported problems.
The disruption raises fears of Iran potentially shutting off the internet entirely again, as it did for a week during economic protests in November. Iran separately has created its own so-called “halal” net of government-approved websites.
Iran announced Monday that the virus had killed at least 66 people among 1,501 confirmed cases. There are now 1,700 cases of the new coronavirus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran in the region, most link back to the Islamic Republic, which after China has the highest death toll from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.
Yet experts still worry Iran’s percentage of deaths to infections, now around 4.4%, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be far greater than current figures show. Saudi Arabia and Jordan meanwhile announced their first cases of the virus Monday.
Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
Mirmohammadi’s death makes him the highest-ranking official within Iran’s theocracy to be killed by the virus. The virus earlier killed Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, as well as a recently elected member of parliament.
Those sick include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as “Sister Mary,” the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported. Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.
Meanwhile Tuesday, the Middle East’s largest airline, Emirates, said it had to reduce or ground flights due to the new virus. Because of the slowdown, the government-owned carrier has asked its employees to take paid and even unpaid leave for up to a month at a time. Emirates’ operates out of Dubai, the world’s busiest for international travel.
“We have been tested before and Emirates will come out stronger,” Chief Operating Officer Adel Al-Redha said.
The world’s largest airline trade association, IATA, says Mideast carriers have already lost around $100 million in revenue due to a drop in ticket sales because of disruptions caused by the virus.
Reporting by Jon Gambrell; Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.
Image: In this Sunday, March 1, 2020 a medic disinfects hands of colleague against coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran (Koosha Mahshid Falahi/Mizan News Agency via AP)