AP PHOTOS: In Qom, where Iran’s epidemic began, the virus is raging

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QOM, Iran (AP) – In the Iranian holy city of Qom, where Shiite scholars study and pilgrims visit a shrine seen as a gateway to heaven, the Islamic Republic’s coronavirus outbreak has started and still does. rage to this day.

As Iran strives to vaccinate its 80 million people, many residents of Qom have not sought the vaccines, authorities say. In a recent week, the city administered only 17,000 injections per day out of a capacity of 30,000 people, said the head of the provincial health department, Mohammad Reza Qadir.

One of the reasons for this is the reluctance of some on the basis of religion. In the first days of the epidemic, religious leaders were reluctant to close shrines and holy places despite the risks of transmitting the virus in overcrowded and insufficiently ventilated spaces.

Some sites closed briefly, but then reopened and remained available during the repeated and violent phases of the pandemic. Across Iran – the Middle Eastern country hardest hit by the pandemic – there have been 5.5 million confirmed viral infections. More than 119,000 people have died, putting enormous pressure on cemeteries across the country. Authorities recognize that the toll is likely much higher.

The Behesht-e-Masoumeh cemetery in Qom is the final resting place of thousands of people. Every day, families can be seen crying as they bury their loved ones, wrapped in traditional shrouds. All of them dug new graves in which they usually bury the dead very deep in the ground.

Many hospitals are filled with victims, some in medical coma, even as authorities warn of a possible sixth wave of infections hitting the country.

It was in Qom, some 125 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Tehran, that the coronavirus first took hold in Iran. Authorities suggest it was spread by an Iranian businessman who returned from China, where the virus first appeared in Wuhan province in 2019. Qom Shiite seminars attract Chinese students. The city is also located along a $ 2.7 billion bullet train line that a Chinese company is building and near a solar power plant that Beijing is helping to build.

But whatever the trigger for the pandemic is here, the virus is still raging.

Here is a gallery of images of Qom by Associated Press photographer Vahid Salemi.

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