Ten days after the coronavirus outbreak was officially acknowledged in Iran, the health ministry’s spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour accused Persian-language media channels outside of Iran of trying to outdo each other in lying about the epidemic. He claimed these platforms were trying to pass off other fatalities from acute respiratory illnesses in Iran as deaths from coronavirus, whereas Iran had shown an “exemplary transparency” when it comes to coronavirus.
In this report we rely on official figures from Tehran’s Behesht Zahra Cemetery from February 20 to June 22 to appraise this “exemplary transparency”. IranWire has received a copy of a confidential report that Behesht Zahra sends to Tehran’s Municipality officials and Tehran City Council each day.
“According to death certificates issued by the doctors, from February 20 to June 22, 2020, a total of 5,491 patients have died of coronavirus or were suspected of coronavirus infection,” it states. “Following the protocols, they were either buried by taking special precautions in plots designated for coronavirus deaths, or were wrapped inside special covers and were handed over to their families to be buried in their chosen burial grounds outside Behesht Zahra.”
IranWire received this report from a Tehran municipality official. From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, health ministry officials and local officials in Tehran province have refused to provide statistics about coronavirus infections and fatalities in the area. But the figures cited in the above report can be evaluated – in terms of both their accuracy and significance – through comparison with data from other sources.
Ignoring Cases without Positive Test results
In early March, deputy health minister Alireza Raeesi conceded that Tehran was the country’s principal coronavirus hotspot. He also acknowledged the inaccuracy of the official figures, noting that of the approximately 8,000 patients who had been hospitalized for COVID-19, only 5,000 had been tested for the virus. In other words, at least 3,000 people were admitted to hospital based solely on a doctor’s appraisal of their symptoms. Therefore, theirs would not be included in the official count of cases.
After the test, the most important tool for diagnosing Covid-19 at doctors’ disposal is the CT scan of patients’ lungs. This has been highly recommended by the World Health Organization. From the very first, due to the shortage of test kits and the relatively low cost of CT scans, doctors relied more on CT scans and even Iranian officials gave this technique the green-light.
In its March 7 meeting, the Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce agreed that if symptoms are strong enough and a CT scan verifies it, a deceased patient’s cause of death must be logged as “conclusive coronavirus case.” Doctors were doing this before, but now this practice had the stamp of approval.
The letter from Tehran University of Medical Sciences dated March 9 and marked “urgent”, instructing doctors in Tehran province to register the cause of death as “conclusive coronavirus case” if symptoms are clear enough and they are supported by CT scan.
In an interview on March 13, Iraj Malekzadeh, the health minister’s deputy for research and technology, confirmed this decision and added that one of the best ways for diagnosing coronavirus was CT scans.
But despite this, official figures on the number of cases in Iran continue to only include those who test positive, alive or dead: a fact that has been confirmed by the National Coronavirus Taskforce itself. After a visit to Iran, Dr. Rick Brennan, Director of the World Health Organization’s Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, asserted that as a consequence the country’s actual COVID-19 death toll was potentially five times higher than the stated figure.
A Cover for Hiding Real Figures
Seen in this light, Jahanpour’s excoriating the media for covering “acute respiratory syndromes” is in reality a vain attempt to prevent the true extent of the coronavirus disaster in Iran being reported on. The MP Reza Shiran Khorasani attempted to bolster these comments by saying that at this moment, there are no other contagious diseases with the same symptoms as COVID-19 – and therefore, it could and should not be conflated with other illnesses.
In fact, however, the world recognizes only two diseases as “acute respiratory syndromes” and both are caused by coronavirus. One is SARS and the other is none other than Covid-19. So – on the assumption that Iran, like everywhere else in the world, is not presently suffering a SARS outbreak – all of those in Iran who die from “acute respiratory syndrome” can only be victims of Covid-19, or the “novel” coronavirus, and that is why they are buried by following specific sanitary protocols.
A damning survey conducted on April 8 showed that 74 percent of people in Tehran either do not trust official coronavirus figures at all or have little trust in them. Around this time the director of Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce announced that Tehran had the highest number of infections, hospitalizations and fatalities in the country. The Parliament Research Center also more or less simultaneously announced that the real number of cases in Iran was 700,000, not the official 70,000, and the fatalities amounted to over 8,500, not the official 4,000.
The Silence of the Gravediggers
News surfaced around this time that Tehran officials were preparing for the worst even as they kept their silence. At a meeting of Tehran City Council on April 12, Mojtaba Yazdani, the deputy mayor in charge of municipal services, reported that in addition to equipping the mortuary of Behesht Zahra with a variety of cold storage facilities and containers, a plot had been set aside for victims of coronavirus and 10,000 have been dug in this plot.
A few days later, Dr. Nahid Khoda-Karami, a member of Tehran City Council’s health committee, confirmed that each day in Tehran between 70 and 100 patients were dying from coronavirus. According to her, the discrepancy between official and actual figures was because a number of coronavirus deaths were registered simply with acute respiratory syndrome given as the cause, not COVID-19 specifically.
In a letter on April 18, Health Minister Saeed Namaki ordered the presidents of Iran’s universities of medical sciences to register cases as “suspected coronavirus” if the doctors diagnose patients with COVID-19 with or without a test. Indeed, just a few days before this instruction was issued, the health ministry’s spokesman had said no-one in any position in the Iranian government had the power to tell doctors to cite any other cause, once they had diagnosed COVID-19.
We can glean some other useful information from the daily reports of the Behesht Zahra cemetery. The first is that in the past two months, the number of COVID-19 deaths in Tehran has dwindled compared to the first two months after the outbreak.
In the first two months a total of 3,973 people apparently lost their lives to coronavirus and were buried here: a daily average of 66. But in the past two months the total fell to 1,518, an average of close to 25 deaths per day.
Another revelation from Behesht Zahra’s figures is that, of the 5,491 coronavirus deaths handled by this particular cemetery during these four months, 3,415 – or 62 percent – were men and 2,076 – or 38 percent – were women.
Of these people who lost their lives to COVID-19, a total of 4,104 were buried in the plot designated for coronavirus fatalities. The other 1,287 were turned over to the families to be buried in other cemeteries in Tehran province, or in other parts of Iran.
When the coronavirus epidemic in Iran started, Gholam Ali Jafarzadeh Imanabadi, an MP from Rasht in Gilan province, said that the “horrible numbers” received from cemeteries showed the official figures about coronavirus victims were not real.
The figures reported by the Behesht Zahra Cemetery confirm this. They are conclusive first-hand evidence, were it still needed, that the official figures are disastrously under-stating the total number of COVID-19 cases in Iran. They also confirm Imanabadi’s assessment that the real numbers are horrible.
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