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Coronavirus Pandemic: An Iranian Chronology, February 2020

March 2, 2020
Shahed Alavi
19 min read
Coronavirus Pandemic: An Iranian Chronology, February 2020

IranWire's Shahed Alavi gives an account of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, and how the government dealt with the unfolding crisis, starting with reports of the first cases through to the staggering escalation of illness across the country — a situation the government failed to control for a range of reasons.

Alavi has updated this chronicle on a regular basis. 


Read the full chronology


February 1: 

"It is Possible that Coronavirus Has Reached Iran"

In its second official statement about coronavirus, the Iranian health ministry claimed that masks were being produced domestically and assured the people that the production would satisfy the needs of the country. However, it also advised the people to take necessary precautions.

Interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli told reporters about the emergency cabinet meeting to discuss coronavirus and said that there had been no reports confirming coronavirus cases in Iran, adding: “considering the exchanges between Iran and China it is possible that coronavirus has reached Iran.”


February 2: 

First Case Announced on Social Media

The Philippines announced the first coronavirus death outside China.

At the same time, many countries, including Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Oman, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and the Philippines, suspended flights to China.

Hamid Arabnejad, the CEO of the Iranian airline Mahan, however, ignored the government’s order to suspend flights to China. In a meeting with Chang Hua, the Chinese ambassador to Iran, Arabnejad informed him that flights between the two countries would continue. It was later reported that from February 1 to March 4, Mahan Airlines made 32 flights to China and back.

A senior official at the health ministry announced that at all Iranian land and air borders the body temperature of arriving travelers had been measured by laser thermometers to ensure that they were not infected by coronavirus and that Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport had been equipped with infrared cameras for the same purpose. Considering that by that time it was known that an infected person might not show any symptoms, including fever, for up to 12 days, it has been suggested that these measures were at least partly just for show.

On the same day, the first report about a coronavirus case in Iran was published on social media. According to a tweet, the patient was a Chinese national who was staying in room 507 of Tehran’s Espinas Palace Hotel was taken to the hospital by a rapid-response medical emergency team and the fifth floor of the hotel was quarantined.

According to a later report by the website Iran International, a 54-year-old Chinese national by the name of Xiao-Ping Zhang from Wuhan was hospitalized on February 2 at Ward 4 of Masih Daneshvari Hospital. He worked at Andia Steel Complex in the city of Zanjan, which was built with Chinese investment. It is likely that he was the same person who had been taken from Espinas Grand Hotel to the hospital.

On the same day, an employee of the city of Ilam’s Medical School, who had first been taken to the city’s Mostafa Khomeini Hospital because he was suffering from coronavirus symptoms including shortness of breath, and who was later transferred to Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari Hospital, died while in the hospital.


February 3: 

The Denials Continue

While visiting the Persian Gulf port city of Bandar Abbas, Ministry of Health official Saeed Namaki claimed that he would not keep any secrets, no matter what the cost to him personally. Nevertheless, he assured people that no cases of coronavirus infection in Iran had been reported and added that the new virus was not more dangerous than the H1N1 virus, a subtype of influenza type 1 virus that had an outbreak in 2009.


February 4:

Iran’s Civil Defense Organization issued a statement about coronavirus and assured Iranians that the situation in the country was “normal” and that field investigations had shown that “the likelihood of an outbreak of this disease in Iran is minimal.”


February 5:

Senior health ministry official Alireza Raeesi denied reports on social media about coronavirus infections and accusations that his ministry had refused to publish the information and claimed that “there is no reason for the Health Ministry to lie about coronavirus infections and fatalities. As of now, test results of suspected cases have been negative.”

The senior health official’s dishonesty was exposed a month later when he claimed in an interview that coronavirus test kits did not exist anywhere in the world before February 11 and it was only after that date that Iran imported the test kits from China and was able to start testing.


February 7: 

State TV Broadcasts Confessions

Iranian state TV aired confessions by a person “who was responsible for spreading the rumor that coronavirus had reached Kurdistan.” In his confessions, the individual expressed remorse and a police colonel claimed that he had been quickly identified and arrested.


February 8:

Even though patients with coronavirus symptoms had been dying in Qom’s hospitals for more than 20 days, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, the president of Qom’s Medical School, told reporters: “health officials are totally honest with the people and, as of now, no cases of coronavirus have been found in this province.”

On the same day, however, the health minister announced the suspension of flights between Iran and China and reported that a number of suspected cases in various provinces were under observation and that students who had returned from Wuhan had been quarantined. Nevertheless, he claimed that all tests of suspected cases had proved negative and the people in question had been released.

But the minister’s claim about the suspension of flights between Iran and China soon proved baseless when Mahan Airlines continued flights between the two countries.

On the same day, the Council of Vice Chancellors in Health Affairs from Iran’s medical schools met to discuss the country’s preparedness for identifying coronavirus cases and controlling the spread of the virus. They submitted a report to the health ministry and planned further meetings at the ministry to continue to review the situation.


February 10: 

Tehran Death Announced

A 63-year-old woman with coronavirus symptoms died in a Tehran hospital. The news of her death was published two days later by the official newspaper Iran, quoting Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). “Based on preliminary reviews and on statements by the hospital’s medical team, it is possible that this woman was infected by coronavirus and died because of it.”


February 11:

During a rally to celebrate the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, health official Saeed Namaki denied that coronavirus had reached Iran. “No matter how many times we say no cases exist, they say that we only want to talk about it after [the anniversary celebrations].”


February 12: 

Denials Continue

Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, denied the accuracy of a report by the official newspaper Iran that a patient had died from coronavirus.

The health ministry, however, did not stop with this official denial. Health Minister Saeed Namaki scolded the newspaper Iran in a tweet, blaming it for creating anxiety among the people and for “vexing our colleagues who are on the frontline of fighting this virus.”


February 13:

General Gholamreza Jalali, head of Iran’s Civil Defense Organization, said that no cases of coronavirus infection had been found in Iran. He described the situation as “normal” and added that his denial had nothing to do with the rallies celebrating the anniversary of the revolution.


February 15: 

Supreme Leader Keeps his Distance from Shia Eulogists

Ayatollah Khamenei held his traditional annual meeting with Shia eulogists but, unlike previous years, there were no photographs of eulogists kissing the Supreme Leader’s hand or standing close to him.

Later, in a video posted online, one eulogist by the name of Nariman Panahi said that Khamenei’s guards had not allowed them to get close to Khamenei to kiss his hand. This story makes it clear that officials of the Islamic Republic certainly knew that coronavirus had reached Iran but did not want to reveal it to the public.


February 16: 

A Letter to Rouhani 

The director of the health ministry’s public relations denied the rumor that a health ministry deputy official had sent a letter to President Rouhani, informing him about the existence of cases in Iran. He confirmed that a number of suspected cases had been tested for coronavirus but said that none of tests had been positive.

On the same day, the website Fararu reproduced the facsimile of a letter attributed to Ghasem Jan-Babaei, a deputy health minister, to President Rouhani that said 45 cases of coronavirus infection had been confirmed and four people had died of the illness. Jan-Babaei denied the report and said, “As of now, no cases of coronavirus have been found in the country.”

On the same day, the brother of Mohammad Molaei, a doctor who eventually forced the health ministry to confess to the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, died at Qom’s Kamkar Hospital. Dr. Molaei believed that his brother had died from the coronavirus and insisted that samples from his brother’s body be tested to identify the cause of death.


February 17:

In a statement, Qom’s Medical School denied the death of two patients due to coronavirus infection, claiming that their deaths had nothing to do with the virus. One of the two was Dr. Molaei’s brother, whose test result had not yet been revealed.


February 18:

Dr. Molaei announced that the test on his brother’s body had been positive and there could be no doubt that he had died from coronavirus infection.

But, on the same day, Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, again denied the reports. “How can we say that we do not have coronavirus in Iran? Soon they will want the secretary general of the United Nations to come here and say that he has not seen any coronavirus in Iran,” he stated. “We have been saying for 45 days that we have not seen any coronavirus but there are some who say that we have but we are not talking because of the [revolution’s anniversary]. Then they are going to say that we are not talking because of the elections [on February 21].”


February 19:  

Health Ministry Forced to Admit Qom Cases

Following the continued pressure from Dr. Mohammad Molaei to disclose his brother’s cause of death, the health ministry was at last forced to officially announce that Molaei’s brother and another patient at Qom’s Kamkar Hospital had died from coronavirus infection.

On the same day, Iran’s Civil Defense Organization published guidelines for fighting coronavirus, which officially confirmed the outbreak. The guidelines emphasized limiting the size of gatherings and the necessity for taking health precautions. The implementation of these guidelines was postponed for three days, until after the parliamentary elections on February 21. This meant that the Iranian officials postponed keeping people safe until after the elections, despite the World Health Organization’s warning that coronavirus was highly contagious and people must be prevented from attending large gatherings.


February 20: 

Conflicting Statements from Officials

Just a day before the parliamentary elections, the dam of denial about coronavirus outbreak in Iran broke and the government changed course — but without consistency. Officials made conflicting statements at different times.  

On this day, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) broadcast on various radio and TV channels statements by people who claimed that talking about coronavirus was a ruse to dissuade people from turning out for the elections and to overshadow their presence “on the scene.”

Health officials adopted this policy as well. “People must not be terrified of coronavirus,” said Mohammad Mehdi Gouya, the director of health ministry’s Center for Disease Control. “The chance of death from coronavirus is two percent, while the chance of dying from influenza is four percent.”

Mohammad Reza Ghadir, president of Qom’s Medical School, claimed that the spread of coronavirus in Qom was under control. He said that Kamkar and Forghani hospitals were on alert and there was no shortage of medicine or personnel. The falsehood of these claims became apparent in the coming days.

Among the first to officially confirm coronavirus cases was the health ministry’s Jahanpour, who reported that three people in Qom and Arak and possibly two others in the northern city of Babol were infected. At the closing of the day, however, health ministry official Saeed Namaki confirmed that five people had tested positive for coronavirus but claimed that the coronavirus outbreak would be controlled in the same way that an influenza outbreak was controlled the previous autumn. We now know that this claim had no scientific basis.

In an interview, Dr. Mohammad Molaei reported that, since mid-January, dozens of other patients who were suffering from the same coronavirus symptoms as his deceased brother had been hospitalized at Kamkar Hospital and had died because they could not be treated. 


February 21: 

Qom Cases Rise But No Quarantine Ordered

Alireza Vahabzadeh, advisor to the health ministry, tweeted that the number of coronavirus cases had reached 18 and four people had died.

British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said that a woman who had recently traveled in Iran was suspected to be the province's sixth case of novel coronavirus. On the same day, it was reported that another person who had traveled from Iran to Lebanon had tested positive for coronavirus.

“The source of the infection probably was the Chinese workers who work in the city of Qom but, in any case, the new coronavirus has spread in the country and has infected the people who have been identified,” said Dr. Minoo Moharez, a member of the health ministry’s National Committee for Contagious Diseases.

In the coming days, the number of infections and deaths in Qom and across Iran gradually increased. Nevertheless, Iranian officials resisted the calls to impose quarantines. Political and health officials continued to insist that there had been no cover-up and that they had been honest with the people.


February 22: 

"We Are in a Stable Situation"

General Gholamreza Jalali, head of the Civil Defense Organization, claimed that the number of infections had not increased since the outbreak of coronavirus had been officially confirmed.

Health ministry official Saeed Namaki said reports of the shortage of test kits and facilities in Iran were just rumors. “We have enough test kits and distinguished experts to diagnose the disease and I beg people to ignore rumors,” he said. “Statistics from Qom show that we are in a stable situation.”

Dr. Minoo Moharez, a member of the health ministry’s National Committee for Contagious Diseases, implicitly told the media that the ministry was under pressure from outside not to reveal the full information about the outbreak even though, from a scientific point of view, the ministry was doing its job properly. “The health ministry has asked that gatherings at, and visits to, religious sites in Qom be contained,” she said, “but perhaps there are [considerations] in identifying and reporting the disease that the health ministry is not aware of.”


February 23: 

Supreme Leader Says Foreign Media is Using Coronavirus as Propaganda to Influence Elections

Ayatollah Khamenei called the coronavirus scare the result of a large-scale propaganda campaign by foreign media to influence people's participation in the elections. “This negative propaganda began a few months ago and increased as the elections were approaching,” he said. “In the last two days, the pretext of an illness and virus was used, and their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting.”

Mohammad Reza Ghadir, president of Qom’s Medical School, who on February 20 had claimed that the spread of coronavirus in Qom was under control, said that the health ministry had ordered that the number of coronavirus cases not be announced. “The situation in Qom is not good,” he said. “I beg the health ministry and the cabinet to have another look at Qom so that Qom will not suffer from the coronavirus epidemic.”

At the same time, some religious authorities asked their followers to pray in order to fend off the disease. One of them was Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani, who told his followers that, to fight coronavirus, “Every day put your hand over your heart and recite the Hamd Surah seven times. Also, every day in the morning and at night, recite the Throne Verse seven times.” Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi gave similar advice to his own followers.

Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi reported that a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council, at which President Rouhani was present, had granted “special powers” to the health ministry. “If it becomes necessary to close down a city because of the coronavirus epidemic, we will announce it,” he said.


February 24: 

Contradictory Statements as Qom Deaths Mount

Private companies in a number of countries had begun producing coronavirus tests kits,and had offered to sell them to Iran. Iranian officials had claimed that it was buying them, but then Kianoush Jahanpour of the health ministry offered a strange justification for not testing all suspect cases, saying that it was the World Health Organization that controlled the supply. “The World Health Organization gives these kits to countries that are capable of administering the test because some countries are incapable of doing it,” he said. “The number of kits is decided by the statistics about the contagion and identification of the cases. If today a country identifies a three-figure number of cases, it will receive a larger number of kits.”

Deputy Health Minister Harirchi appeared to forget what he had said just a day earlier about quarantines. On February 24, he said that he was against imposing quarantines and that this practice belonged to the time before the First World War. “We test, analyze and predict about coronavirus,” he said. “We review the consequences of any decision. Quarantine has numerous undesirable consequence and I am totally against it.”

Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, Qom’s representative to the parliament, announced that 50 people had died in his city from coronavirus in the province and 250 people were in quarantine. "Qom is not doing well in terms of the spread of coronavirus and I think the government's performance in controlling the virus has failed," he said. He told reporters that coronavirus had been in Qom for three weeks.

On the same day, in a closed-door meeting of the parliament, the health minister said that in total, 12 people had died from coronavirus infection.

“The curve [of coronavirus infections] in Qom is gradually going down,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, Supreme Leader’s Advisor in International Affairs, contradicting the warning by Dr. Ghadir a day earlier, Farhadi’s statements on the same day and all reports that indicated the spread of the virus was gaining momentum fast.

A Canadian research team announced that, based on their modeling, the number of coronavirus cases in Iran was 200 times the official figures. “We estimated that 18,300...COVID-19 cases would have occurred in Iran, assuming an outbreak duration of 1.5 months in the country,” said the study.


February 25: 

Refusal to Quarantine

In the first meeting of the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, President Rouhani said that closing down Iran was what the country's enemies wanted and that the rate of coronavirus infections was going down. He announced that by Saturday, February 29, everything would be back to normal.

His assertion was met by a wave of criticism and was rejected by other Iranian officials on the same day and the days that followed.

During the week after Iran officially announced the coronavirus outbreak, many countries in the world, including its neighbors, closed their air and land borders with Iran. The wave of border closures and cancelation of flights started with Iraq on February 20 and Kuwait and other countries in the region followed suit in a few hours. In the following days all neighboring countries, including Turkey, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia and several countries in the region, including Georgia, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, closed their borders with Iran.


February 26:

While the experts called for infected cities to be quarantined, President Rouhani told his cabinet that the move to impose quarantines was not on the agenda and that decisions about quarantines and other restrictions rested with the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus. The health minister also announced his opposition to quarantining in an interview.

Mohammad Saeedi, Guardian of the Holy Masoumeh Shrine in Qom, opposed the idea of quarantining the city. “For us, this holy shrine is the House of Healing,” he said. “This means people come here to be cured from physical and mental illnesses. It must remain open so that people can come to it.”


February 27: 

Cancelation of Friday Prayers

President Rouhani ordered all government agencies to obey decisions taken by the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus and approved all decisions the headquarters had already made, including the closure of some public places and schools.

Alireza Zali, Tehran province’s commander of Operations against Coronavirus, said that he had proposed to the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus that Friday Prayers in the capital and other cities of the province be suspended, the closure of pilgrimage sites until further notice, the closure of schools, the suspension of concerts and the closure of cinemas and theaters.

To prevent the further spread of coronavirus, Friday Prayers were not held in the cities of 23 Iranian provinces, including Tehran, Qom, Rasht, Mashhad, Tabriz, Urmia, Hamadan, Isfahan, Sari, Ardabil, Karaj, Ahvaz, Semnan, Zahedan, Shiraz, Qazvin, Sanandaj, Kermanshah, Yasuj, Gorgan, Khorramabad, Bandar Abbas, and Yazd.


February 28: 

As Officials Contract Virus, Attacks on Foreign Media Increase

First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, who had tested positive for COVID-19, was taken to his home following the fifth meeting of the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus and was quarantined along with his family, although this news was not immediately announced. On March 3, his younger brother Mohammad Jahangiri, a vice president of Iran’s Medical Council, was taken to Masih Daneshvari Hospital after he came down with coronavirus symptoms.

In a tweet in response to a report by BBC Persian that at least 210 people had died in Iran from coronavirus, Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, accused Persian-language media outside of Iran of lying about the number of infections and fatalities. “The queen’s media outlet, worried that in the race for lying it would fall behind Saudi and Albanian networks, pass on to their readers the number of deaths due to severe pulmonary syndromes as fatalities from coronavirus without citing any sources. Iran’s transparency in publishing information about coronavirus has gotten the better of many.” Albania was mentioned most likely because US officials had recently moved members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization, a long-time enemy of the Islamic Republic, from Iraq to Albania.

Health official Saeed Namaki yet again changed his position regarding quarantine. This time he said that, if necessary, he would quarantine some cities for 14 days and would not allow anybody to enter or leave.

Also, as the head of the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, Namaki wrote a letter to Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Parliament, asking him to suspend meetings of the parliament, both public and behind closed doors “in consideration of the spread of coronavirus and the possibility of contaminating others.”

On the same day, the World Health Organization upgraded the global risk of the coronavirus outbreak to "very high" — its top level of risk assessment. But it stopped short of calling the outbreak a pandemic at that point.

Gholamali Jafarzadeh Imanabadi, member of the parliament from Rasht, accused officials of hiding the real number of coronavirus victims and beseeched them to tell people the real numbers. He claimed that he had counted “very horrible” numbers from cemeteries. “You cannot hide the graveyards,” he said.


February 29:

Ten days after the official announcement of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, the virus spread to 23 other provinces. Observers noted that the quick spread of the virus to 23 provinces was another piece of evidence that showed coronavirus had reached Iran long before it was officially announced.

The Iranian foreign ministry refused the offer from the United States of medicine and humanitarian aid to fight Covid-19. This offer by “a country that has used economic terrorism to put Iranian people under enormous pressure and has even blocked the purchase of medicine and medical equipment is a ridiculous claim and a political-psychological game,” said Abbas Mousavi, spokesman for the foreign ministry.


Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for March 2020



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