Copy of 2020-03-24T121842Z_1182882627_RC2CQF9TD1P4_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-IRAN-1585144550536
Iranian men carry the coffin of the journalist Abdollah Zavieh, who passed away due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19), to bury him at Behesht Zahra cemetery in Tehran on March 24. Image Credit: VIA REUTERS

Dubai: What is happening in Iran? The question was on everybody’s mind as the coronavirus outbreak news trickles from the Islamic Republic with the number of confirmed cases and the deaths becoming a point of contention.

Most experts say the number reported by Iranian officials is suspect because the government either recklessly underestimated the threat of COVID-19 or tried to hide the real number in an attempt to cover up a desperate situation that could potentially add to the its people’s frustration with an inefficient and corrupt regime.

“The death toll and the number of infected are probably much higher than the government admits,” Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told Gulf News. He described the initial Iranian response to the outbreak as “inadequate and slow”.

The first two cases appeared in Iran on February 19 in Qom, a city of major religious importance. However, the signs of trouble were seen as early as late January when the reformist media started warning of an outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran as China shut down Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic. Even then, the government downplayed the issue.

Downplaying crisis

“We found out a little late that the coronavirus had entered Iran because we mistook it for the flu,” Reza Malekzadeh, Deputy Health Minister, said later, as the number of cases started to rise. On Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases exceeded 27,000 and the death toll rose to more than 2,000, according to official figures. There were also other reasons the government wanted to publicly downplay the crisis.

“The government probably was loath to cause panic out of fear that it could further reduce participation rates in the parliamentary elections and, more importantly, paralyse an economy that was already in dire straits as a result of [US] sanctions,” Vaez explained.

The legislative elections were held on February 21, two days after the first cases appeared in Qom, amid an escalation of tension with the US following an American raid that killed Iran’s celebrated Revolutionary Guard commander Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport on January 3. Since then, the US doubled down its sanctions on Iran as part of its maximum pressure policy imposed by the Trump administration since Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018. The sanctions led to Tehran being unable to sell its oil, deterioration of the economy, rising inflation and unemployment, and the crippling of the banking sector.

The regime sought a large turnout to show that Iranians stood behind the government. Forty-three per cent of registered voters cast their ballots, which Supreme leader Ali Khamenei described as a victory. He was quoted by state TV as saying the participation was a “shining success in the great election test.”

Unofficial numbers

He even blamed the foreign media for trying to “discourage people from voting under the pretext of a disease and a virus.” However, as he was speaking, two days after the polls, the coronavirus has already killed six people and infected more than 30 others, official figures showed, although unofficial numbers, attributed to local medical workers, put the number of dead at 50 on that day. Health experts widely dispute those numbers, saying the real number would by 10 times the official one.

“There is no doubt that Iran’s initial response to the crisis was too slow and inadequate. But even when it realised the scale and scope of the public health crisis, it was hampered by the impact of US sanctions,” Vaez says.

Another reason Iran wanted to hide the real impact of the outbreak was its plan to bring out millions of people on the street to mark the 41st anniversary of its 1979 revolution. It was meant to be another ‘show of unity’ message to the US.

However, the regime could not continue hiding the news of the rapidly increasing numbers as leading officials in government began to succumb to the virus. The list includes two vice presidents, Masoumeh Ebtekar and Eshaq Jahangiri, leading cleric Hashem Bathaie Golpayenagi, a member of the powerful Assembly of Experts, two cabinet members, a number of lawmakers and senior Revolutionary Guard members.

The government was also wary of renewed protests if they announce their failure in containing the outbreak. Just one month before the first cases appeared in Qom, Iran has witnessed large anti-regime demonstrations triggered by the downing of a Ukrainian airplane in early January.

Vaez said Iran’s denial of the actual size of the COVID-19 crisis may lead to more protests. The government’s botched response to the outbreak will have a domestic political impact. “The people’s trust is the government and Iran’s leadership is at a historic low. While the outbreak has reduced the odds of unrest for the foreseeable future, if the gap between the state and the society is not bridged, the leadership is only buying time until the next uprising,” he noted.