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 will be updating this chronicle on a regular basis.
A review of statements from and actions by Islamic Republic officials in connection with the coronavirus epidemic since the first day that China officially announced the outbreak reveal a collection of misleading disinformation combined with wrong and highly-damaging measures. Although through reviewing this collection one can glean insight into the many reasons behind the early secrecy and denials by Iranian officials, it is not clear whether they had any understanding of the disastrous consequences of their decisions at the time.
These misleading pieces of information are plentiful, and appear in official statistics. From Wednesday, February 8, when health official Ghasem Jan-Babaei confirmed that two patients in Qom had tested positive for coronavirus, through to Tuesday, March 24, when the government announced 24,811 cases of infection and 1,934 deaths from coronavirus, Iranian officials have made contradictory announcements about the spread of the virus and its fatalities.
One significant point is that, at the time of the publication of this report, Iranian officials have refused to release figures for COVID-19 deaths in the provinces of Tehran and Qom, probably because of the high rate of mortalities.
This report reviews how Iranian officials have dealt with the coronavirus epidemic from December 31 2019, the day that China announced that it had identified a new virus, to March 25, the sixth day of the new Iranian calendar year, the day that the step-by-step policy of quarantines started in Iran.
In January 2020, the world was learning more about coronavirus, a respiratory illness that had first broken out in Wuhan, China, where the numbers of cases had been steadily rising since December. On January 12, China shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus and the World Health Organization outlined the symptoms associated with the virus in a statement. Iranian officials denied that the illness was having any impact on the Islamic Republic.
As the virus began to spread around the world, many countries took precautions, monitoring flights arriving from China and stopping flights from Wuhan. Iran did not take any precautions.
On January 22, Iranian officials said a screening team was stationed at Imam Khomeini Airport and that all travelers coming from China were being carefully monitored and diagnosed. A few days later, on January 26, the head of the health ministry’s Contagious Diseases Department, said that Iran was importing test kits from Germany. Officials maintained that there were no cases of coronavirus in Iran.
Two days later, this changed, and they acknowledged that cases had emerged in Qom.
By the end of the month, health ministry officials asked first Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri to stop flights between Iran and China, but this was not immediately implemented.
Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for January 2020.
In February, Iranian officials continued to deny coronavirus was having any impact on the country, while news of cases were being reported on social media. Officials claimed the necessary precautions were being taken, including temperatures being taken at airports. But in Qom, the number of cases was climbing, and people were losing their lives.
Then, on February 7, Iranian state TV aired confessions by someone who had been arrested for spreading the rumor of cases in Kurdistan. On February 10, official media reported that a woman in Tehran had died from COVID-19.
As annual celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution approached, officials continued their denials. Then, on February 15, Ayatollah Khamenei avoided contact with Shia eulogists during an anniversary ceremony, whereas in previous years, Iran’s media published photographs of these religious proceedings, and eulogists were seen kissing his hand or standing close to him.
On February 19, Iran’s Civil Defense Organization published guidelines for fighting coronavirus, officially confirming the outbreak.
But parliamentary elections were due to take place on February 21, and some officials, including the Supreme Leader, accused people of using the virus to distract or dissuade people from voting.
Cases in Qom continued to mount, but officials refused to quarantine or shut down the city. Finally on February 27, Friday prayers were canceled in several cities.
But denials continued, and officials took pains to accuse the foreign media of inflating the depth of the coronavirus crisis in Iran.
Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for February 2020
In early March, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent Iran 7.5 tons of equipment and supplies to fight coronavirus. The day after this, Ayatollah Khamenei insisted the epidemic was nothing to worry about, though he urged people to pray. WHO raised concerns over the lack of access to protective equipment for medical staff.
As cases started to rise, members of parliament began to criticize the government’s failure to impose quarantines on affected areas. Provincial officials began to block entry to non-residents traveling into their provinces, and there was widespread fear that the failure to close down Qom had led to the spread of the virus.
At least 12 political figures died of Covid-19.
On March 16, President Rouhani insisted there would be no quarantines or closures in the run up to the Persian New Year.
By March 25, steps were taken to stem the rise in cases, including social distancing rules. Then, the lockdown began. By the end of March, Rouhani’s chief of staff announced that the quarantine was having a swift and positive effect.
The health ministry put the total number of deaths from the epidemic at 2,517, a number that experts believed was a gross understatement.
In an open letter on March 29, 100 Iranian political and civic activists accused Ayatollah Khamenei of turning the outbreak of Covid-19 into a national disaster.
Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for March 2020
In April, lockdown continued, with the National Coronavirus Taskforce announcing that covered bazaars, restaurants, exhibition centers and other non-essential businesses must be shut until further notice.
Contradictory statements and claims from the government continued, including information about when religious buildings could re-open, especially for the month of Ramadan, which started on April 24.
Medical experts and researchers stated that the number of people who had died in Iran from COVID-19 could be as high at 10 times the official figure.
Iranians continued to suffer from dire financial situations, with unemployment on the increase and workers raising alarm about how they had been treated during the pandemic. In late April, despite mounting cases of coronavirus cases in Khuzestan province, workers from the Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Factory protested over unpaid wages.
Also in late April, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged countries to respect human rights during the epidemic, and listed 15 countries that were used the epidemic as an excuse to quash dissent and silence people, including Iran.
At the end of April, 3,600 people had been arrested for coronavirus-related “offences” online.
Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for April 2020
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. The health minister warned, as it had in April, that the country should expect a second spike in cases in the fall, along with a surge in influenza.
Along with other government claims, the education ministry boasted that 60 percent of Iranian students with internet access had been connected to its remote learning portal.
It became mandatory to wear masks in mosques and on public transport.
Domestic violence was on the rise in a number of provinces, though Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, dismissed that the situation was worrying in Iran.
Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for May 2020
June 2020 is likely to be remembered in Iran for a second waves of coronavirus across the country, with at least 15 provinces reporting rises in cases and fatalities. In some cases, officials reported that provinces were actually experiencing their first spike, as the virus spread across the country.
Medical staff continued to contract the illness, and, on June 16, health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Laria announced that at least 7,400 nurses had contracted the virus since March.
At the same time, the country was easing restrictions and some medical professionals began expressing alarm that people had begun to be less observant of social distancing guidelines.
Despite this, President Rouhani continued to push plans for economic recovery. “I am afraid that people’s safety is being sacrificed for the sake of the economy," the chairman of the parliament’s Committee on Health said on June 30, adding that Rouhani appeared to be pretending that life was returning to normal.
The number of people tested positive for Covid-19 across the country rose to 227,662 on June 30, following the detection of 2,457 new cases since noon on Monday, June 29, reported Sima Sadat Lari. She added that 147 coronavirus patients had died over the last 24 hours, bringing the official death toll in Iran to 10,817.
Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for June 2020
In July, as most provinces in Iran experienced a second spike in coronavirus cases, the Iranian health ministry’s newly-appointed spokeswoman consistently presented misleading, incomplete and flawed data about the coronavirus epidemic in Iran and the government’s handling of it. In particular, the government provided insufficient data on Covid-19 in the provinces, often blatantly omitting information about “red” areas, or areas with rapidly rising numbers of cases and deaths and where hospitals were in danger of being overwhelmed and unable to cope. By the end of the month, Khuzestan province, on of Iran’s hardest hit areas, moved from an emergency state of alert to a state of high or serious alert.
At the same time, President Rouhani continued to push for businesses to open and remain open in an effort to bolster Iran’s economy, leading medical experts to claim he was embracing a policy of “herd immunity.” One epidemiologist who sits on the National Coronavirus Taskforce described the policy as a move toward possible “genocide.”
Officials also repeatedly gave inconclusive and misleading information regarding testing, and as the month drew to a close, several of them claimed that Iran was leading the way in finding a vaccine for the virus.
Three important religious ceremonies were due to take place on July 31, August 7 and August 29, and throughout July, officials contradicted one another when discussing whether the ceremonies could continue in indoor public places. They also refused to say whether forthcoming national university entrance exams would be going ahead as scheduled.
Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for July 2020
The situation remained critical in August, and in Tehran the daily death toll stayed at 100.
Political wrangling over nationwide university entrance exams continued. Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf called for exams to be postponed, but Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi defended plans for exams to go ahead, quipping that the number of participants would be fewer than a day's crowd on a Caspian Sea beach, appearing to not understand the difference between people taking exams in an enclosed space and people outdoors with the opportunity of social distancing.
On August 7, it was reported that the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a Shia spiritual leader with a huge following around the world, including in Iraq, where he is based, donated a billion dollars to Iran to help the country fight the epidemic. At the same time, health ministry spokeswoman Dr. Sima Sadat Lari stated that, of the one billion dollars from Iran’s own National Development Fund that had been allocated to fight coronavirus, only 30 percent had been received so far. She also said the people of Qom must wear masks and if they failed to do so, the numbers of deaths seen earlier in the year would return. However, just as Lari made her statement, the chairman of parliament’s Health Committee said that between 40 and 50 percent of Iranians cannot afford to buy masks.
Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for August 2020
In September, Iranian schoolchildren returned to the classroom in many parts of the country, though areas where there were still high numbers of coronavirus cases or serious risks of the disease spreading took alternative measures, including educating children online or devising schedules whereby not all children would be in classes every day.
Rouhani marked the beginning of the new school year in an online address, ringing a bell and insisting that a good education for the nation did not mean the public’s health would be compromised.
Politicians took steps to start the impeachment process against the education minister, Mohsen Haji-Mirzaee, who had been criticized for giving contradictory messages about the return to school and whether it was mandatory for students to attend class. It was the latest in a string of attempts to find a scapegoat for the ongoing crisis.
Rouhani also urged people not to compare Iran’s handling of the crisis with other countries, adding that it was important to remember that Iran was unique, because of its distinct cultural and religious heritage, but also because of the harsh sanctions people had to live under.
In the meantime, as autumn approached, fears escalated that a third wave of the virus was also on its way.
Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for September 2020
Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf visited a Covid ward at a hospital on October 6, prompting President Rouhani to cancel a meeting between the heads of the three branches of government out of fears Ghalibaf might be infected.
Iranian authorities voiced concerns over a new spike in coronavirus cases as people prepared to mark the Muslim holiday of Arb’aeen on October 8.
After extensive discussions, the National Coronavirus Taskforce announced on October 10 that people who didn’t follow rules designed to protect the public, including not wearing masks in public places, would face fines. However, earlier in the month there were reports that the country was experiencing a shortage of masks.
Following a spike in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in mid-October, President Rouhani’s administration ordered lockdowns in five metropolitan areas: Tehran, Isfahan, Urmia, Karaj and Mashhad ahead of a three-day holiday.
Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, announced: “Travel should be restricted to and from five cities where coronavirus infections are rather high.”
But, in an attempt to avoid the travel bans, many people set off on their journeys earlier, meaning there was still a very real risk that the virus was transmitted by people traveling between provinces and high- and low-risk areas.
Officials continued to contradict one another, as 30 out of 31 provinces remained in a high state of alert throughout the month.
Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for October 2020