Iran’s coronavirus crisis began the very first day the government voiced its first denials: that the virus was anything to worry about and was no more than a bad cold or influenza, that cases had emerged in the holy city of Qom, that Iran's health system might not be able to cope with and treat patients who had contracted it. Today, almost five months later, those denials continue, though the lies have shifted and mutated numerous times since the early days of the pandemic.
IranWire's Shahed Alavi has documented the pandemic in Iran, and the misleading, dangerous and contradictory messages coming from government officials and religious leaders.
In May, Iranian officials claimed that Iran was a leading manufacturer of coronavirus test kits, while others said United States sanctions had prevented people from accessing the medical equipment they need. At the same time, several provincial governors expressed concerns that cases were on the rise in their towns and cities, even as some industries and businesses, including at the country’s airlines, were beginning to reopen.
Read the full chronology of the pandemic in Iran.
Dr. Alireza Zali, director of the Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, stated on May 5 that the capital was still in the midst of the epidemic. He said the haste to return to normal life was posing a significant danger, and could lead to new waves of infections. A few days later, on May 8, he said as long as the coronavirus epidemic in Tehran was not contained, the epidemic will not be controlled across Iran, even if the contagion falls to an acceptable level in other parts of the country. “In Tehran we are still submerged in the first wave of this disease and the epidemic has not subsided,” he said.
As Zali discussed the crisis in Tehran, a member of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom insisted on May 5 that he had been able to continue with Friday Prayers throughout the crisis. Mohammad Gharavi said there had not been any suspension of prayers, and that the religious ceremonies for the Muslim calendar month of Sha’ban had taken place. But Ghavari’s claims contradicted statements made by government officials and the National Coronavirus Taskforce, which had asserted that religious gatherings were prohibited until further notice. Ghavari made his claims during an interview, but stopped short of naming the mosque or specifying its location.
Data regarding the number of hospitalizations show that the province of Qom is still in a “red” or critical state, according to Bahram Sarmast, governor of the province, speaking on the same day as Ghavari. As a result, he said, life cannot return to normal. On May 8, he stated that religious sites could not be re-opened.
While religious leaders such as Ghavari have suggested some aspects of Iranian life have continued as normal, many others have acknowledged the impact of the pandemic. According to a study by Beheshti University Medical School, approximately 50 percent of those who have recovered from Covid-19 in Tehran are suffering from psychological problems.
Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization announced that all airlines must provide passengers with sanitary kits including masks, and all passengers must use these kits during flights.
A “Gift From God”
Coronavirus has killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world and has caused economic misery and poverty for Iran and for people everywhere. And yet Ahmad Alamolhoda, Mashhad’s Friday Imam called it phenomenal “gift from God” because Iran now produces medical equipment and “exports test kits to countries that claim they are developed and called us developing.”
And yet the health ministry’s spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said the ministry was unable to provide the list of cities that are currently safer, in other words, cities considered to be in a “white” or relatively clear state regarding risk. He said there was no central authority to evaluate whether a city is in a “white,” “yellow” or “red” state of alert. He added that a city can only be declared to be “white” for a period of five days, after which this was no longer a valid assessment. The city in question, he said, could potentially change to “yellow” or “red” after that period. He warned that nobody could predict whether Iran will face a second wave of the coronavirus epidemic in the coming days or not.
Jahanpour also claimed that Iran is currently self-sufficient in producing test kits and other medical items, and that surplus supplies will be exported or donated to other countries. At the same time that Jahanpour made this claim, the Islamic Republic was telling the world that American sanctions had prevented Iran from having access to necessary equipment to fight the coronavirus epidemic in Iran.
Mehr News Agency reported that 40,000 test kits made by an Iranian company have been exported to Germany, described by Jahanpour as “surplus” kits. The claim was wrong because the populations of Iran and Germany are almost equal, so their needs for tests kits must be similar too. Germany, however, has conducted more than 30,000 coronavirus tests per million people, whereas Iran has only tested 6,000 per million. The claim of sending out “surplus” kits is valid only if Iran conducts a similar number of per capita tests.
In early April, while Iran conducted around 50,000 coronavirus tests per week, Germany tested around 350,000 people. Currently, Iran conducts close to 80,000 tests, whereas Germany tests over 125,000 people per week. If the report by Mehr News Agency is true and Iran has indeed exported test kits to Germany, then the only reason could be to make money, while ignoring the lives of Iranians who become infected with coronavirus and die or suffer complications; often their illnesses are misrepresented as “severe pulmonary syndrome.”
Mohammad Reza Shanehsaz, the head of Iran’s Food and Drug Bureau, said that research conducted in Iran into the use of the influenza drug Favipiravir to treat Covid-19 is its final stages but that, as of now, the results have not been encouraging. However, if it proves to be effective it will be manufactured domestically, he said.
Against all evidence to the contrary, Abdolnaser Hemmati, the governor of Iran’s Central Bank, claimed that Iran’s passage through the coronavirus crisis has been more sure-footed and calmer than many other countries and, when it comes to foreign currency, Iran is in better shape than it was two years ago.
The Provinces Still in Serious Danger
In Khuzestan, governor Gholamreza Shariati stated on May 5 that, prior to April 3, when social distancing was being practiced, very few people had been infected with coronavirus, but after social distancing rules were relaxed — in some areas this happened unofficially as early as the first week in April — and especially over the last 10 days, the number of infections has risen.
Farhad Abolnejadian, acting director of the Ahvaz University of Medical Sciences expressed his worries about Khuzestan too. On May 8 he said that five cities in the province that have been reported as being out of severe danger, or in the so-called “white” category when it comes to levels of alert, are not actually white. He said that he hoped senior officials of Khuzestan can work together and agree to impose stricter sanitary rules for the province
Akbar Behnamjou, governor of Ardebil province, reported that in recent days the number of coronavirus infections in some cities of the province had been rising, adding his voice of concern to the governors of Qom and Khuzestan provinces.
Mohammad Jazayeri, the head of Iran’s Viral Diseases Network, warned that when quarantine was lifted in mid-May, the country might witness a second wave of Covid-19.
Reuters news agency reported that a series of studies of the genomes taken from thousands of samples of the new coronavirus show that it is mutating and evolving as it adapts to its human hosts, but that this does not yet mean that there are necessarily different strains of the virus currently in circulation, as some Chinese researchers had suggested earlier.
Read the full chronology, Lies, Misinformation and Makeshift Graves: a Chronology of Coronavirus in Iran