TEHRAN - Iran confirmed eight deaths from the novel coronavirus on Sunday, the highest toll of any country outside China, as the supreme leader accused foreign media of trying to use the outbreak to sabotage a general election.
The final results of the parliamentary election are due on Sunday, two days after it was held on the heels of the confirmation of novel coronavirus cases in the country.
A low turnout had been widely forecast, as a conservative-dominated electoral watchdog disqualified about half the 16,000-odd candidates, mostly moderates and reformists.
Voter apathy marked the polls, but Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday lauded the people's "huge participation" despite what he termed "this negative propaganda".
It "began a few months ago and grew larger approaching the election and in the past two days, under the pretext of this illness," he said, according to a televised extract of his speech.
"Their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting. (Our enemies) are even opposed to any election by the Iranian people," the leader was quoted as saying on his official website.
The latest three deaths Iran reported on Sunday were among 15 new confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, bringing the overall number of infections to 43 and fatalities to eight -- the highest death toll outside of China, the epicentre of the epidemic.
Four new infections surfaced in the capital Tehran, seven in the holy city of Qom, two in Gilan and one each in Markazi and Tonekabon, health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.
Authorities have ordered as a "preventive measure" the closure of schools, universities and other educational centres in 14 provinces across Iran from Sunday.
They include Tehran and Qom, where the first cases emerged, as well as Markazi, Gilan, Ardabil, Kermanshah, Qazvin, Zanjan, Mazandaran, Golestan, Hamedan, Alborz, Semnan and Kurdistan.
Art events, concerts and film shows have been banned for a week.
"We are on the frontlines, we need help," the head of Qom's medical sciences university, Mohammadreza Ghadir, said on state television.
"If I can say one thing, it is help Qom."
Iran's neighbours have started to take precautions against the spread of the virus.
The Kuwait Port Authority on Sunday announced a ban on the entry of all ships from the Islamic republic.
Iran's health minister, Saeed Namaki, said the treatment of COVID-19 cases would be free.
"In every city, one hospital will be dedicated to treating coronavirus cases," he said, adding that this number would be greater in bigger cities like the capital.
Tehran's city hall has ordered the closure of snack shops and water fountains in metro stations, officials said.
Tehran municipality spokesman Gholamreza Mohammadi said buses and underground trains were being disinfected.
Mohsen Hashemi, head of Tehran's municipal council, said, "If the number of infections increases in Tehran, the whole city will be quarantined."
Posters were also being put up across the sprawling city on Sunday, asking people not to shake hands as part of a coronavirus prevention campaign.
Iran's cyberpolice meanwhile warned that anyone putting "fake clips" online related to the virus would be punished.
The World Health Organization has expressed concern over the speed at which COVID-19 has spread in Iran, as well as it being exported from the Islamic republic to other countries, including Lebanon.
Iran has yet to confirm the origin of the outbreak, but one official had speculated that it was brought in by Chinese workers.
Although official figures are still coming in, Iran's conservatives look set for a landslide win in the 290-seat parliament.
If the conservatives' resurgence is confirmed, it will mean President Hassan Rouhani's slender majority of reformists and moderates elected with fanfare four years ago is nearly purged.
The 11th parliamentary election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution comes after a surge in tensions between Tehran and Washington, and Iran's accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests.
Turnout was estimated at around 40 percent nationwide and 30 percent in Tehran at the scheduled close of polls on Friday, according to Fars news agency.
But authorities extended polling for another six hours to allow as many people as possible to vote.