Coronavirus: Hundreds dead in Iran from drinking methanol amid fake reports it cures disease

As many as 480 people may have died from drinking the toxic substance following rumours that ingesting high-proof alcohol is a remedy for Covid-19

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Friday 27 March 2020 14:19 GMT
Coronavirus: Temperature checks and disinfection at Iran airport

Hundreds of Iranians have reportedly died and more than 1000 fallen ill after consuming methanol amid false rumours that it can help cure the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Iran has struggled to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed almost 2,400 people across the country and infected another 32,332.

In a desperate search for a cure, families have been turning to fake remedies that have spread across social media, including alcohol, which is banned in the Islamic Republic.

According to Iranian media, almost 300 people have been killed by ingesting methanol.

An Iranian doctor helping the health ministry told the Associated Press that the extent of the problem was even greater, and estimated the death toll at 480, with 2,850 people ill.

“Other countries have only one problem, which is the new coronavirus pandemic. But we are fighting on two fronts here,” said Dr Hossein Hassanian, the health ministry adviser.

“We have to both cure the people with alcohol poisoning and also fight the coronavirus.”

A video broadcast on Iranian networks and shared online showed a five-year-old boy, who had apparently gone blind after his parents gave him the liquid, hooked up to breathing apparatus.

According to several reports over the past two weeks, people in the southwestern province Khuzestan have been arrested for selling methanol to purportedly ward off the disease. Cases of methanol drinking have also been reported in the southern city of Shiraz and in the cities of Karaj and Yazd.

Citing a story published in a UK tabloid early in February, Iranian social media accounts have promoted the idea that a British schoolteacher and others were able to cure themselves of Covid-19 with whisky and honey.

Combined with the guidelines that alcohol-based sanitisers can be used as a hygienic measure against the virus, some have wrongly concluded that drinking high-proof alcohol could kill the disease.

Alcohol is banned in Iran. The government mandates that manufacturers of toxic methanol add an artificial colour to their products so the public can tell it apart from ethanol, the type of alcohol that can be used in cleaning wounds and in alcoholic drinks.

Some bootleg producers of alcohol, however, use methanol in their drinks, adding bleach to mask the added colour.

Iran has struggled under the weight of the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.

Across the region, countries have tightened their restrictions. Lebanon has extended a nationwide lockdown, including the closure of borders and airports and the imposition of a new evening curfew, until the 12 April. Iraq has announced similar measures.

The Iranian military said on Friday that it has set up a 2,000-bed hospital at an exhibition centre in the capital, Tehran, in order to shore up the local healthcare system. State TV said the new facility was set up in just 48 hours and includes three units as well as several isolation wards.

Authorities have urged people to stay at home but have yet to impose the sweeping lockdowns seen elsewhere in the region.

On Friday, Iranian media channel IRINN said new social-distancing measures would be put in place to limit travel between cities.

According to the same report, police are expected to start stopping cars with non-local number plates and fine owners, whose vehicles would then be impounded for one month.

At the start of the Iranian new year holidays last week, 3 million people were reportedly on the move within the country despite messages from the authorities that they should stay at home.

Iranian officials have repeatedly insisted they have the outbreak under control.

The country has been under crippling sanctions since the US president, Donald Trump, withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.

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The US, which is now a focal point of the pandemic, has offered humanitarian aid to Iran, but Tehran has refused, saying that the severe sanctions have been the biggest obstacle in Iran’s fight against the pandemic.

Fears remain that the death toll from methanol drinking and alcohol poisoning will continue to rise.

The Associated Press spoke to a bootlegger who said that demand for alcohol was at an all-time high.

“Every year during Nowruz [the Persian new year holidays that began on 20 March], my customers double,” said Rafik, an Iranian-Armenian who makes vodka in the basement of his Tehran home. “This year, because of the coronavirus, it jumped up four or five-fold.”

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