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.
To downplay the rate of fatalities from Covid-19, Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, compared it to the number of deaths caused by road accidents. “Just today, March 1, 480 people died in traffic accidents but, nobody pays any attention to them.”
In an interview, senior health official Ghasem Jan-Babaei said that, in a worst case scenario, Iran might still be fighting coronavirus well into May and even June and for this reason gatherings must not be allowed, no matter what the purpose.
In a letter addressed to the United Nation's Secretary-General, António Guterres, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the virus was conceived by the US. In his letter, which was published on an Iranian website, Ahmadinejad claimed that “Mutated and intelligent viruses such as Covid-19 are made in laboratories or, to put it more accurately, in the biological warfare arsenals of certain imperialist powers and far surpass the inhumanity, destructiveness, and terror that other weapons such as nuclear and chemical invoke.”
General Mohammad Pakpour, Commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Ground Forces, reported that a “biological base” to fight coronavirus had been established and announced that all units under his command were on “full alert.”
The World Health Organization sent Iran 7.5 tons of equipment and supplies to fight coronavirus, including test kits, gloves, surgical masks and respirators. The shipment was worth US$300,000 and it was accompanied by a six-member medical team consisting of doctors, epidemiologists and laboratory specialists. It was the first WHO team to be sent to Iran since the crisis began.
"France, Germany and the United Kingdom express their full solidarity with all impacted by Covid-19 in Iran," the three countries said in a joint statement, adding that material including laboratory test equipment and protective body suits and gloves would be sent to Iran.
A few hours later Bahram Ghasemi, Iran’s ambassador to France, tweeted that he was flying on an Iran Air flight from Paris to Tehran, bringing along the material donated by France, as specified in the joint statement by the three European countries.
On the same day, government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a press conference that from the very beginning, when the first coronavirus test was positive, the government of Iran had been honest and transparent in publishing the news. “Honesty is natural to us,” he said. “Iran has been one of the most transparent countries when it comes to coronavirus.” He claimed that some countries had put their political, economic and other interests ahead of the lives of their people, but Iran had not acted this way.
Various commentators noted that people who lie regularly often have no option but to repeat every few hours that they are as honest as honest can be.
Emphasizing that the coronavirus outbreak was not a major concern and must not be exaggerated, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei asked people to recite a specific prayer to fend off the virus. In addition to offering people this cure for the epidemic, Khamenei went on to praise government officials for the way they had handled the crisis. “Our officials have been informing the public since the first day with honesty and transparency, but some other countries where the disease is more widespread are hiding the news,” he said. “Of course, we also ask Allah to bestow health on those people who are sick too.”
Health ministry official Alireza Raeesi announced that the coronavirus test had been administered to more than 5,000 out of around 8,000 patients who had been hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms. In other words, the test was not administered to all suspected cases but only to patients who had been hospitalized — and then not all of them.
The problem of the lack of protective gear “is particularly serious in Iran,” warned Michael Ryan, a senior official of the World Health Organization. These “needs are more acute for the Iranian health system then they are for most any other health system,” he said.
In a letter to health minister Saeed Namaki, Mohammad Reza Zafar-Ghandi, president of Iran’s Medical Council, wrote that that private clinics in the fields of internal medicine, infectious diseases and pulmonary ailments and general practitioners, which are on the frontline of diagnosing the symptoms of coronavirus infections, were facing enormous difficulties in obtaining preventive gear and necessary supplies such as medical masks and detergents.
On the same day, France announced that it had sent equipment including test kits and protective gear for medical personnel to Iran.
Reuters reported that “scientists in China studying the outbreak of disease caused by the new coronavirus say they have found that two main strains of the virus are circulating in humans and causing infections…The preliminary study found that a more aggressive strain of the new coronavirus associated with the outbreak in Wuhan accounted for about 70 percent of analyzed cases, while 30 percent were linked to a less aggressive type.” Experts not directly involved in the study said its findings were interesting, but cautioned against drawing firm conclusions from such preliminary research.
Iran’s Football League Organization announced that “to protect the well-being of players, coaches, organizers and media representatives, all football club competitions for the Pro League, 1st Division, League 2 and League 3 have been canceled.” Based on this announcement, the competitions were scheduled to resume after April 2 but, considering that the coronavirus crisis is persisting, it is likely that the suspension of the games will continue for an unknown period.
The result of a survey conducted between March 2 and March 4 by Tehran municipality’s Social and Cultural Office showed that the people of the Iranian capital did not have much trust in the official figures regarding the coronavirus epidemic and were not happy about the manner in which the government released information about the virus.
“Coronavirus pummels Iran leadership as data show spread is far worse than reported,” a Washington Post article about the coronavirus epidemic in Iran reported. “The data set — including demographic details and status of the cases — shows a 17 percent surge in deaths” in just two days. “Experts say the close ties between Qom, the spiritual center of Iran’s ruling clerics, and the political leadership in Tehran probably contributed to the outbreak among senior officials. Clergymen and policymakers travel frequently between the two cities, and some officials — including those who later tested positive for the virus — were together at cabinet meetings and in the parliament.”
Earlier, Ali Akbar Hosseininejad, an advisor to the guardian of the shrine, had opposed the closure of the pilgrimage site because he said it was “not necessary” and had said that people should take the necessary preventative measuresthemselves.
Within a week after the official announcement of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, the epidemic spread across Iran and the three provinces of Qom, Tehran and Gilan turned into epicenters of the disease. Traffic to and from Mazandaran, Gilan and a number of central and southern Iranian provinces was restricted and people were asked to avoid unnecessary travel.
According to official figures, by noon on March 6, the number of coronavirus cases in Iran had reached 4,747 and 124 people had died from the disease.
Health official Saeed Namaki said that inspection stations would be set up to restrict travel between big cities and the provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran would prevent travelers from entering some of their towns.
The northwestern Chinese province of Gansu reported 11 new confirmed coronavirus sufferers, all of whom entered China on commercial flights from Iran, according to state media. A total of 311 passengers arriving at the Gansu’s provincial capital Lanzhou from Iran were quarantined.
In a tweet, Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh, member of the parliament from Naghadeh in West Azerbaijan, criticized authorities’ failure to quarantine cities hit by the coronavirus epidemic. “The pileup of bodies in Qom and the helplessness of the people of Rasht is a testament to the incompetence in providing information and timely warnings about coronavirus,” he wrote. “You did not quarantine the cities and now that we are at the peak of the epidemic at least make home quarantine mandatory in Qom and Rasht before we break the world record in fatalities.”
Gholamali Jafarzadeh Imanabadi, a member of the parliament from Rasht, warned that the city was on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. “There is a shortage of health necessities,” he said. “Figures of infections and fatalities are very horrifying and these figures are exponentially getting worse. No kit for testing people suspected of coronavirus infection is available.”
The governors of 15 provinces, including Gilan, Ardabil, Isfahan, Yazd, Kermanshah, Bushehr, Hormozgan, Golestan, Fars, Lorestan, Ilam, Semnan, Sistan and Baluchistan, Mazandaran and Razavi Khorasan, announced that, due to the coronavirus epidemic, they would not allow travelers and non-natives to enter their provinces.
But later, when the proceedings of a meeting of Mazandaran’s Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus was published, it turned out that hotels were allowed to reserve 30 percent of their rooms for Iranian new year travelers. It appeared that, neither in Mazandaran province or in others, provincial officials were able or willing to really quarantine their provinces by keeping out travelers.
Ahmad Reza Bahremand, a board member of the Pasteur Institute, a not-for-profit foundation that conducts research about diseases, said that if the epicenters of the coronavirus epidemic are not contained, Iran would face a range of problems. “It is wrong to call quarantine a medieval practice,” he said. “We must look to other countries where coronavirus has spread as well.”
In a letter to President Rouhani, Ali Mohammad Shaeri, a member of the parliament from Behshahr, asked for the complete quarantine of Mazandaran province, closure of tourist areas and immediate dispatch of medical equipment and medical teams to the province.
Iran’s attorney general stated that endangering people’s health was a high crime punishable by death. In a letter, Gholamreza Heydari, a member of the parliament from Tehran, asked: “What will be the punishment for somebody in Qom who prevented restrictions and did not allow coronavirus to be nipped in the bud? There were those who opposed any restrictions as though it is a blasphemy that must be punished by death. But people’s health is paramount and you cannot play with people’s health with fantasies.”
As the coronavirus epidemic spread in northern Iranian provinces, the caucus of Gilan’s members of parliament demanded the complete quarantine of the province, closure of government and company offices and mandatory travel restrictions. In a letter addressed to the health minister and the speaker of the parliament, they pointed out that the enforcement of some policies was beyond the power of provincial officials and needed the authorization of National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus.
“Insisting on pretending that a critical situation is normal forfeits the chance to control and contain the crisis,” wrote Tehran MP Mohammad Reza Najafi in his second letter to President Rouhani. “A definitive order to quarantine Tehran, Isfahan, Alborz, Qom and Gilan is a necessary action and it must be carried out as soon as possible, and completely.”
In a tweet, Bahram Parsaei, member of the parliament from Shiraz, asked the governor of Fars to quarantine the province. “I listened carefully to today’s reports by the health minister and the speaker of the parliament,” he wrote. “In all honesty I must say that we are far from unified management and we must take care of ourselves. I ask the esteemed governor to quarantine the province and restrict travels to the province so that Fars would not turn into another Gilan.”
If Iran had put the pilgrimage cities of Qom and Mashhad under quarantine, the virus would not have spread as far as it had, Turkey’s health minister Fahrettin Koca told reporters. “If we had not closed our border with Iran, about 50,000 people per week could have entered Turkey,” he said.
At a meeting of Semnan province’s Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, Semnan MP Ahmad Hemmati said that entry into and exits of out urban areas in his province must be controlled to prevent the spread of coronavirus. He emphasized that quarantine is a valid scientific practice but said that it had been neglected across the country.
In response to criticisms of authorities’ failure to quarantine Qom when the coronavirus infection was first identified and later spread to other areas, Asghar Salimi, a member of the parliament’s Health Committee, said “quarantine is beneficial in fighting such diseases but Qom is a religious city with a lot of traffic and it appears that it would have been difficult to impose quarantine at the time.”
Tehran’s prosecutor announced that it would take legal action against those who post false statistics about the coronavirus epidemic on social media and create anxiety and confusion among the public.
In an interview, Mohammad Hossein Ghorbani, the health minister’s plenipotentiary representative to Gilan, said that although the situation in the province was very critical because of the coronavirus epidemic, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council opposed the total quarantine of Gilan. He also reported that the government had not agreed to pay a subsidy for the cost of hospital treatment — one million tomans or a little over $67 in the open market exchange rate — to daily-paid workers who had been forced to stay at home because of coronavirus.
One of the relatively distinguishing features of the coronavirus epidemic in Iran has been the high number of political figures and officials who have become infected. As of March 11, at least 12 political figures had died of Covid-19 and close to 43 were in quarantine and were being treated. Those who have contracted the illness include Rouhani’s First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, two cabinet ministers, another vice president, a deputy minister, three associates of Ayatollah Khamenei, five members of the parliament and five officials of the Revolutionary Guards.
An investigative article by the Washington Post entitled “Coronavirus burial pits so vast they’re visible from space,” reported: “At the Behesht-e Masoumeh complex in Qom, about 80 miles south of Tehran, the excavation of a new section of the graveyard began as early as February 21, satellite images show, and then rapidly expanded as the virus spread. By the end of the month, two large trenches — their lengths totaling 100 yards — were visible at the site from space. According to expert analysis, video testimony and official statements, the graves were dug to accommodate the rising number of virus victims in Qom.”
This shows that government officials knew that they had to prepare for a large number of fatalities from the coronavirus outbreak — meaning that they lied when they said that they were not aware of the outbreak until they officially announced it.
In an interview for a Telegram channel, Dr. Mohammad Molaei said that on February 14 the head of the intensive care unit at Qom’s Kamkar Hospital, where his brother was hospitalized with symptoms of coronavirus, told him that in the preceding month a number of patients with exactly the same symptoms as those of his brother were hospitalized there, but they had died regardless of the level of treatment that they had received. Dr. Molaei’s brother eventually died and when, at the insistence of Dr. Molaei, his body was tested it was proved that he had died of coronavirus.
Masih Daneshvari Hospital announced that Ali Akbar Velayati, president of the hospital and Ayatollah Khamenei’s advisor in international affairs, has caught coronavirus and had been quarantined at home.
In a post on Instagram, Abdolnaser Hemmati, the governor of Iran’s Central Bank, reported that on March 6, Iran had formerly asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $5 billion dollar loan to be used to acquire necessary resources to fight Covid-19 epidemic, putting the request in writing to the head of the IMF. “The response of the international community and the IMF can be a good measure for evaluating their claims for helping to control this virus and reducing the pain of the people who have been hurt,” Hemmati’s post read.
Reza Malekzadeh, a deputy health minister, was the first senior Iranian official to acknowledge that coronavirus had reached Iran before February 19, when the first case was officially announced. “I believe that this virus had reached Iran earlier,” he said in an interview with Iran TV. “I think we were a little late in announcing it because we did not know and we did not believe that it was [the virus].
“Now we have a test [but] sometimes it comes up negative even if the person has been infected,” he said. “One of the best ways to diagnose the illness is a CT scan that can return more accurate results.”
Nevertheless, Iran still announced its figures on cases based on positive test results. Even then, the test had only been administered to a little over half of the patients who had been hospitalized after contracting coronavirus symptoms.
After the first meeting of the members of the “Health Base” of the armed forces, set up by orders from Ayatollah Khamenei, General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said that within the next 24 hours his forces would patrol shops, streets and roads and if suspected cases were found, these people would be transferred to processing centers within 10 days.
Only one day after Malekzadeh’s statements, Iraj Harirchi, the senior deputy health minister, repeated his claim that the delay in announcing the coronavirus outbreak was due to a delay in identifying the virus. But, whether true or not, denying the outbreak for 40 days, from January 10 to February 29, was enough for this deadly virus to spread across Iran.
Alireza Zali, commander of operations for the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, said that phases 1 and 2 of the quarantine had been carried out but phase 3, which involved the closure of all offices and appealing to people to stay home, would not go into effect for the time being. He said that phase 4, meaning the complete quarantine of the city, would only work if phase 3 was carried out appropriately. “Until phase 3 is carried out, a single infected individual can pass the virus to [many people].” Addressing a meeting of artists, he asked them to stay home and to encourage other people to avoid traveling.
This was also the day that Iranians were told that they should be grateful to Qom. “We all know that this virus is contagious and Iran is indebted to Qom,” said Masoumeh Zahiri, an official at Qom Seminary for Women. “Qom found out about the virus before others in Iran because it paid attention to it.”
In a video conference, the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus passed a resolution to control traffic in 11 Iranian provinces and to “put restrictions on movements especially in connection with infected people.” Details of these restrictions were not announced.
“Today the situation in Mashhad has become more critical and worrisome and, unfortunately, many of the bad events that we had predicted are unfolding,” wrote Mashhad’s mayor Mohammad Reza Kalaei on Instagram. “The government must make the right decisions in fighting coronavirus…I sent a bill to the City Council and asked that many activities be suspended until further notice so that we can move faster toward self-quarantine at home. And the council has asked for the suspension of bus and train services in the city. I believe that the next week is going to be the most fateful week for Mashhad and its people.”
“We have nothing by the name of quarantine and the rumors that in Tehran and in some other cities some businesses have been closed down is not true,” said President Rouhani in a joint meeting of his cabinet and representatives from the business community. “We have no quarantines today and we shall not have quarantines before, during or after Nowruz [Iranian new year holidays]. All are free to carry on their businesses. And the provinces cannot decide about this, not their governors, nor their health agencies. Any restriction must be decided by the National Headquarters [to Fight Coronavirus] in Tehran.”
As Rouhani was delivering these statements, Khuzestan’s governor announced that all passenger vehicles were banned from entering or leaving the province. He said that all passenger terminals and businesses, except supermarkets, pharmacies, bakeries, butcher shops and green grocers would be closed down until further notice.
Alireza Zali, commander of operations for the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, said that complete quarantine of the cities would no longer be effective because “many cities and provinces have been already infected and the quarantine would make no difference.” He warned that some officials and citizens were not taking the epidemic seriously and that the government had acted late and indecisively.
Mohsen Hashemi, president of Tehran’s City Council, demanded that the term “quarantine” be clearly defined. “We still have no clear definition for quarantine,” he said. “To educate the public, the officials must first define ‘quarantine’…so that people will know what will happen [if quarantine is imposed]. For the capital, perhaps a low-level quarantine could have a positive effect.”
With the discrepancies between figures published by the health ministry and independent statistics by medical schools and the difficulty in reconciling them, Mazandaran’s Medical School announced that it would no longer publish coronavirus figures for the province. “To avoid publishing contradictory information about coronavirus-infected patients and the fatalities from this virus, and to avoid confusing the public, the figures related to provinces will be announced by the health ministry’s spokesman…on a daily basis.”
Molavi Abdul Hamid, the Sunni Friday Imam of Zahedan, regarded as the spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunni population, said that the Chinese seminary students at Qom’s Al-Mustafa International University had brought coronavirus to Iran. “Officials know that in the last decades a maximum amount of money has been spent on Al-Mustafa University and thousands of seminary students who know nothing about their religion have been brainwashed there,” he said.
Parvaneh Salahshouri, a member of the parliament from Tehran, criticized officials for dragging their feet in dealing with the outbreak of coronavirus in Qom and said that everybody was now paying the price because Qom had not been quarantined. “Instead of covering the truth, the officials could have quarantined Qom right away to prevent the spread of the virus to other cities,” she said.
Just a day after President Rouhani categorically rejected quarantines, Alireza Zali, commander of operations for the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, implicitly criticized him. “Views expressed by executive officials and the way people behave show that they are still not taking the deadliness of coronavirus and the necessity of quarantines seriously,” said Zali, taking a harsh tone. According to him, people have lost their trust because of contradictory decisions and a lack of transparency.
In a phone survey, the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) found that, contrary to Rouhani’s position, 89.4 percent of respondents supported the quarantining of cities with a large number of coronavirus cases. The 1,554 respondents were asked how they defined “quarantine,” and replied that it meant restrictions on entering and leaving cities, or closing down cities altogether, with people remaining in their homes except when they had to go out for necessities.
The market for conspiracy theories about the origins of coronavirus was open. Iranian official media quoted Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who had suggested that coronavirus was created by American Scientistsin 2015 and it might have been introduced by members of the United States Army, who visited Wuhan in October.
In protest against the closure of pilgrimage sites in Qom and Mashhad, a group of religious zealots gathered outside the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad and the Masoumeh Shrine in Qom, demanded that they be reopened and broke the doors to the shrines. In the following days a number of them were arrested and some were forced to express remorse in front of TV cameras.
Heydar Ali-Abedi, a member of the parliament’s health committee, spoke about why cities in Iran had not been quarantined. “If we quarantine the cities people would have difficulty in acquiring what they need,” he said. “Quarantine in Iran would have its own consequence and we cannot compare it to other countries.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged the negligence and the secrecy of the Iranian health system. “The health system could have taken action to control and identify coronavirus earlier,” he said. “It could have informed the people on time.”
Government’s spokesman Ali Rabiei told a TV news program that President Rouhani had been aware of coronavirus at least since January 26. “We had no conclusive information about coronavirus in Iran but on January 24 we gave the president a letter about its possible outbreak in Iran and on January 26 the president issued orders about it,” he said. These statements by the government’s spokesman cast further doubt on Rouhani’s claim that he had not been aware of the coronavirus infection in Iran.
Health ministry official Alireza Raeesi said that the “situation is not good at all” and expressed pessimism about their ability to control the coronavirus epidemic in the near future. “Perhaps some have suggested that it is not serious but this virus is highly contagious and destructive and if we do not deal with it we will lose our loved ones,” he said.
Dr. Rick Brennan, Director of Emergency Operations for the World Health Organization’s new Emergencies Program, who had just returned from Iran, said that Iran's Covid-19 death toll was underreported due to testing being restricted to severe cases. The toll could be potentially five times higher, he said.
In his speech marking the end of the Iranian calendar year 1398, Rouhani claimed the government learned about coronavirus in Iran only on February 19. “When tests in Qom were examined in Tehran and results were positive, we announced it without even one day of delay,” he said. “We could have announced it after [parliamentary] elections [on February 21] but we were honest and told the people about it.” He warned people that 70 percent of them might contract coronavirus, adding: “We have to tell people about medical facts so that they will trust us.”
This was the same Rouhani who on February 25, 22 days earlier, had told people that everything would be back to normal in four days and that coronavirus would soon be dealt with and disappear.
Anooshirvan Mohseni Bandpey, the governor of Tehran province, announced that there were 3,900 Covid-19 cases in Tehran during an emergency meeting of Tehran’s Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus. “Currently, 3,500 Covid-19 patients are hospitalized at government hospitals and 400 at Baghiyyatollah al-Azam Military Hospital,” he said. “Of this number, 600 hundred are in ICU.”
Astan News, the website for the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, reported that shrine officials had decided to lift the morale of the patients and medical staff of the hospitals and thank them by reciting prayers and religious chants via the internet. The program was to cover 12 hospitals across Iran that were dealing with coronavirus. The report made no mention of how the patients, many of whom were between life and death, and the doctors who have to take care of them against the odds reacted to this plan.
“Despite all the problems, between this Norooz and the next Norooz, and on the eve of the new century [1400 on the Islamic solar calendar], we will celebrate two occasions: the defeat of coronavirus and the end of the sanctions,” tweeted Hesamodin Ashna, an advisor to President Rouhani. “We shall not allow them to quarantine Iran.” He did not make it clear whether by “quarantine” he meant the political isolation of Iran or a medical quarantine — which more than 80 percent of Iranians favor but the government opposes.
Bahram Sarmast, the governor of Qom province, claimed that within two weeks a crash operation would completely eradicate coronavirus from Qom, using the resources of the Revolutionary Guards and the army. “There must restrictions on entering and leaving the province and on shopping centers,” he said. “We must prevent crowds as much as possible in order to break the vicious circle of infection. God willing, by April 3 coronavirus will be completely eradicated from Qom.”
On Instagram, Hasan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a former health minister, posted that he had communicated to senior officials, including President Rouhani and a number of health ministry’s officials, his concerns and his suggestions about the coronavirus outbreak in late December, contradicting claims by Rouhani and health officials.
The health ministry’s spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour warned that if people did not pay attention to the necessity of reducing their movement, crowds, socializing and travels, the coronavirus epidemic would peak again within the next seven to 14 days.
To justify Iran’s delay in announcing the coronavirus outbreak, one deputy health minister, Alireza Raeesi, said that “tests kits were only available in China" and that “the moment that China provided us with these kits, we started coronavirus tests…Before February 11 there were no test kits in the world for us to identify the disease.” His claim was baseless because, starting in late January, a number of big companies around the world had begun producing test kits and Iran had placed orders with them.
Hamid Reza Goodarzi, Tehran province’s governor, issued an order regarding the necessity of closing commercial centersin the province. It stipulated that businesses must carry out this order and would be liable to legal action if they violated it. Goodarzi said that large stores providing necessities and pharmacies were exempt from the order.
Dr. Alireza Zali, commander of operations for the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus in Tehran’s metropolitan area, reported that there had been a five percent increase in the number of coronavirus cases at treatment centers and a 12 percent increase in the number of patients that needed to be hospitalized at ICUs.
Expressing regret that coronavirus patients who were going to treatment centers were feeling worse and the rate of those who have improved is lower, Dr. Alireza Zali, commander of operations for the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus in Tehran’s metropolitan area, said: “There is no doubt that the wave of travelers who are returning to Tehran has made the situation even worse.”
The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF or Médecins Sans Frontières) sent a 50-bed inflatable hospital and an emergency team of nine people to Isfahan, the second-worst affected province in Iran, to increase hospital capacity for treating patients critically ill from coronavirus. The treatment unit was shipped by air from MSF’s logistics hub in Bordeaux, France, and was due to be set up in the compound of Amin Hospital in Isfahan. The unit was equipped to treat critically ill patients requiring constant and strict medical supervision and care.
Complaining that millions have been traveling for Iranian new year’s vacations despite warnings, Alireza Zali said that their return would make the situation in Tehran more critical. “Some of those infected with coronavirus have mild symptoms and do not know that they are sick,” he said. “By traveling they expose themselves and people around them to death. Their return is worrisome as well. The point is that if we want people to stay at home, we must continue with the shutdown of offices and [other places of business].”
Karim Hemmati, acting head of Iran’s Red Crescent Society, announced that more than 8.5 million Iranians left 19 provinces on the new year holiday and some 6,500 of them had shown symptoms of coronavirus infection including high fever.
Even though the first shipment for a field hospital by Doctors without Borders (MSF) had arrived in Iran, health ministry revoked its previous approval for MSF’s presence to manage severe coronavirus cases in Isfahan. Alireza Vahabzadeh, an advisor to the Iranian health minister, tweeted that there was no need for a “foreign” field hospital.
Hamid Reza Jamshidi, Secretary of the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, said that the goal of the National Mobilization Plan against Coronavirus was to medically screen more than 41 million people, or half of the population of Iran. “Now we have secured enough beds for coronavirus patients and there is no shortage,” he claimed. “We have received a large number of medical masks and equipment and they will be distributed among medical schools.”
“The epidemic in Iran was detected too late and only after it had established itself in the country,” said Dr. Masoud Mardani, a specialist in contagious diseases and a member of the National Committee on Coronavirus. He added that the numbers announced by the Ministry of Health were only part of the story because the health ministry’s daily report only covers those who are hospitalized or go to the hospitals for tests and whose tests are positive.
“The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is shocked by the statement made today by officials of the Iranian Ministry of Health revoking its previous approval for MSF’s intervention to manage severe Covid-19 cases in Isfahan,” announced MSF. “[Iranian]officials declared today that the country does not need additional treatment capacity for the management of severe cases.
“We are deeply surprised to learn that the approval for the deployment of our treatment unit has been revoked,” said Michel Olivier Lacharité, manager of MSF’s emergency programs, who is based in Paris. “The need for this intervention, and the authorizations needed to start it, were discussed and agreed with relevant Iranian authorities during the past weeks. Our teams were ready to start medical activities at the end of this week.”
“The plan for social distancing will be approved and will go into effect,” said President Hasan Rouhani in a cabinet meeting. “It might be restrictive and create problems for people who want to travel. We ask people to return to their original place of residence as soon as possible.”
“By the order of the president, today the government, offices and economic activities will close until April 15,” the government spokesman Ali Rabiei said. “New travels and leaving towns are now banned.”
Both these statements went against what Rouhani had said just a few days earlier. He had insisted that life was returning to normal, no business must be shut down and no quarantines must be enforced, whereas restricting travel is in itself a form of quarantine.
Dr. Alireza Zali, commander of operations for the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus in Tehran’s metropolitan area, said that the epidemic in Tehran had yet to reach its peak and proposed that forceful action be taken against those that ignore preventive measures.
According to him, patients in Tehran who go to medical centers had been those whose incubation period, from three to 14 days, was over. He also suggested that Tehran’s parks and playgrounds be shut down.
The army announced that it had opened a 2000-bed convalescent shelter at the site of Tehran’s International Exhibitions Center.
“Traffic between cities will be sharply restricted, although there is enough time left for the return of travelers to their places of residence,” said health official Saeed Namaki. “We have the license plates of all cars that have left their cities and they shall be contacted.”
According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), screening in Qom showed that 8,051 people in the city needed immediate attention. IRNA reported: “Despite the closure of shopping centers, traffic in Qom’s thoroughfares and main streets show that the people have yet to believe [that the illness is serious].”
With his latest statements, Dr. Zali completed the jigsaw puzzle of the sudden change in the policies of Rouhani’s administration regarding the coronavirus crisis. In an interview at the Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences where he is a neurosurgery professor, Zali frankly called the so-called policy of “herd immunity” — which the government was following in practice by refusing to impose quarantines — wrong, scientifically invalid and medically immoral.
According to a recent paper published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about the coronavirus pandemic, “herd immunity” is based on the idea that “If the virus keeps spreading, eventually so many people will have been infected and (if they survive) become immune that the outbreak will fizzle out on its own as the germ finds it harder and harder to find a susceptible host.”
Abandoning the policy of “herd mentality” meant a step-by-step implementation of quarantines, although Dr. Zali did not mention “quarantine” by name, perhaps to avoid embarrassing Rouhani and others who had strenuously opposed it. But it was clear that if a new policy was not implemented and the policy of “everything is normal” continues, Iran would witness the horrifying number of fatalities that the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus had estimated earlier.
As of March 25, according to official figures by the Ministry of Health, 27,017 people in Iran were infected by coronavirus, of whom 2,077 have died. But adding up statistics provided by sources including medical schools, local officials and other health officials produces a number of 59,120 cases of people with coronavirus who have been hospitalized and 3,036 deaths from Covid-19. Other estimate put the figures higher.
Hossein Zolfaghari, Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs, announced that to prevent the spread of coronavirus all provinces will enforce a “ban on leaving” and vehicles with plates that belong to other provinces would be impounded for a month.
“In our laws there is are harsh punishments for individuals who cause the spread of a deadly virus but we hope we won’t have to use them,” said Zolfaghari. He did not say whether these punishments applied to officials who, first through a cover-up and then by preventing the quarantine of Qom, caused the spread of the deadly coronavirus in Iran.
The health ministry’s spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said that more than 50 million people in Iran had participated in the “coronavirus screening” project. He reported that more than 43 members of medical teams have been “martyred” by Covid-19 and said that “the real criminal is the US because with its unilateral sanctions it has acted against humanity and against all Iranian people and such a inhumane behavior is not acceptable.”
According to the Epidemiology Committee of the Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, he said, in the best case scenario the spread of coronavirus in Iran would continue until early April and in the worst case, it will not stop until June. “Considering the cooperation of the people and the measures that have been taken, the peak will come around early April and then we will enter the control and the containment phase, although the situation in neighboring countries will affect things as well,” said Jahanpour.
In a meeting of his cabinet’s Economic Committee, President Rouhani reported that he would ask Ayatollah Khamenei to allow the withdrawal of one billion dollars from the National Development Fund to help pay some of the expenses of fighting the coronavirus epidemic.
Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Parliament, claimed that, as a result of decisions by the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, the rate of coronavirus infections in many Iranian provinces had been dropping. “If people cooperate fully then we can wrap up this disease in a few weeks,” he said.
But Masoud Pezeshkian, his first deputy, wrote that this problem was not going to be solved by temporary decisions in small and slow doses and that Iran must take decisive actions like other countries. “The whole country must be mobilized to be on alert, otherwise this virus might stay with us for months and rob us of many of our officials, doctors and people,” he wrote on Instagram.
In his second open letter to President Rouhani, Mohammad Reza Najafi, member of parliament from Tehran, wrote that Iran’s measures against coronavirus were simplistic, that the health system was fragile in trying to cope with the increase in fatalities and in dealing with the disaster and that the country must be quarantined for four weeks.
Mohammad Reza Mir-Jalali, president of Yazd’s Shahid Sadoughi Hospital, reported that 146 members of medical teamsin Yazd had been infected with coronavirus and said that the rate of infections and fatalities in the province was increasing.
Hooman Ghasri, deputy president of Kurdistan Medical School, said that three coronavirus-infected children, aged five, six and eight, had been hospitalized at Sanandaj’s Besat Hospital. He pointed out that, contrary to earlier assumptions, children under the age of 10 years are susceptible to the virus and can die from it.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said that, despite the daunting hurdles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Iran must live up to its pledge to co-operate with the investigation into its downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January and release the plane’s black boxes.
Domestic production of coronavirus test kits was approved by the Iranian medical research organization the Pasteur Institute. It was expected that by the following week, 80,000 kits would be available, according to the Health Ministry’s spokesman Kianoush Jahangiri. He added that after the domestic demand was met Iran would export the kits to other countries as well.
Jahanpour claimed that Iran’s health system had been very successful in early coronavirus identification and intervention and its experience in this area could be implemented on a global scale.
He said, however, that families’ travels during the Iranian new year holidays, which started on March 20, had spread the coronavirus further and the figures of infection had risen, both because of the holiday travel and because more cases with mild symptoms had been identified. “By traveling, many people carried the disease to others,” he said.
Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raeesi told reporters that it was likely that coronavirus in Iran originated in Qom and Gilan provinces. According to him, a number of students living in Wuhan, China brought the coronavirus to Qom and Gilan before Wuhan was quarantined.
Mahmoud Vaezi, President Rouhani’s chief of staff, said that measures taken by the government to control coronavirus were adopted based on consultations with specialists and that social distancing is a better bet than quarantines. “As of now, nobody can confirm with confidence that traditional quarantine is the unquestionable solution to this problem,” he added.
The cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr in Khuzestan and towns in Arvand Free Zone in the northwest of the Persian Gulf were placed under complete quarantine. Roads to these cities were closed and people traveling by air would be quarantined at airports for a week.
General Teymour Hosseini, commander of the National Highway Police, announced that until the ban on inter-province traffic was lifted, vehicles with license plates from outside a province would not be able to enter or leave that province. Violators would be fined 500,000 tomans ($117) and their vehicles would impounded for a month.
Gholam Hossein Mohammadi, president of Tehran Municipality’s Communications Office, tweeted that Tehran’s metro services had fallen to one third of their normal services, metro service to the city of Hashtgerd near Tehran had been suspended and the number of riders was less than 1/18th of what it had been before the coronavirus outbreak.
On the same day, 74 inmates in the Kurdish city of Saghez, six of whom had been sentenced to death, escaped from prison after expressing frustration with the sanitary conditions in the prison and fears that they would be infected with coronavirus. They had asked for a temporary release from prison but their names were not among those to whom furloughs had been granted.
Hasan Abolghasemi, president of Iran’s Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Society, announced that that plasma therapy, i.e., injecting infected individuals with the plasma of those who have recovered, had been tested on 20 Covid-19 patients in Iran and the results in 12 cases has been “relatively satisfactory.”
President Rouhani claimed that 70 percent of Iranians were observing quarantines and said that 20 percent of this year’s budget — around 100 trillion tomans, close to $23.5 billion — had been earmarked to fight coronavirus. He said that the government and insurance will pay 90 percent of the expenses for treating coronavirus patients.
He assured people that there were no shortages of medicine or food in Iran and that the health system was ready to provide services even when the crisis reached its peak. “Iran is not a country where you see the patients abandoned in the hallways of the hospitals or the bodies of the dead in mobile morgues,” he said.
It would appear that President Rouhani had not seen the videos of the morgue in Qom and his claim that the “health system is ready to provide services even when the crisis reaches peak” went against the views of experts, who believed that the health system was liable to collapse as the coronavirus epidemic reached its peak. One of these experts is Dr. Ali Akbar Haghdoost, chair of the Epidemiology Committee of the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus, who said that it could only be hoped that when the epidemic hits its peak in Tehran there would be enough beds.
The health ministry’s spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour claimed that Covid-19 infection in Iran was “being managed” although it was not yet “under control.” He said that the number of confirmed cases had reached 35,408 and explained that the increase was due to both improved screening and tests and to the people who had ignored the health ministry’s guidelines. He put the total number of deaths from the epidemic at 2,517 — a number that experts believed was a gross understatement.
“Coronavirus has been creeping across Iran since late January but without showing itself,” said Dr. Haghdoost. “Early cases showed either no symptoms or had no symptoms that were specific to the virus and, as a result, could not be identified” as coronavirus.
But evidence showed that Dr. Haghdoost’s claim was false because, beginning in late January in Qom’s Kamkar Hospital and in early February in Masih Daneshvari Hospital, patients with clear coronavirus symptoms had been hospitalized or had died.
Haghdoost said that he hoped that the epidemic would reach its peak before the end of the summer.
The health ministry’s advisor Dr. Hossein Hassanian told the Associated Press that, since the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, 480 people had died from drinking methanol in the mistaken belief it could prevent the virus and 2,850 more had been poisoned. “Other countries have only one problem, which is the new coronavirus pandemic. But we are fighting on two fronts here,” he said. “We have to both cure the people with alcohol poisoning and also fight the coronavirus. Unfortunately in some provinces, including Khuzestan and Fars, deaths from drinking methanol has exceeded the number of deaths from the new coronavirus.”
According to AP, in messages forwarded and forwarded again, Iranian social media accounts in Persian falsely suggested that a British school teacher and others had cured themselves of the coronavirus with whiskey and honey, based on a tabloid story from early February. Mixed with messages about the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, some wrongly believed drinking high-proof alcohol would kill the virus in their bodies. But, since drinking alcohol is banned under the Islamic Republic, people who try to drink alcohol are sometimes tricked into buying methanol instead of ethanol.
Dr. Alireza Zali, who was overseeing operations to tackle coronavirus in Iran, claimed that, since the outbreak of coronavirus, the Revolutionary Guards and members of the paramilitary Basij Organization had “valiantly” served the people and were owed gratitude. He did not specify whether people also owed them gratitude for “valiantly” fighting coronavirus when, on March 4, they buried a Guards commander in a huge ceremony in Tehran, giving the virus a good opportunity to spread even more.
In a tweet, Hesamodin Ashna, Rouhani’s advisor, asked people to “voluntarily protect themselves at home” so that the country would not have to remain in quarantine for long.
“Some provinces have left the peak of Covid-19 disease behind them and the curve of the epidemic in these provinces is moving downward,” said President Rouhani in a cabinet meeting. “But in some other provinces we cannot say with certainty that the peak [has been reached]. We have to wait for the end of the Nowrooz holidays before we can decide what the situation is.”
In an open letter, 100 Iranian political and civic activists accused Ayatollah Khamenei of turning the outbreak of Covid-19 into a national disaster across the country. They also slammed President Rouhani for aligning himself with Khamenei in covering up the facts and attributing the coronavirus outbreak in Iran to an "enemy plot.” The signatories also lambasted the Islamic Republic’s leaders for not granting furlough, or temporary release, to all political prisoners whose lives were endangered by the Covid-19 outbreak from behind bars. The letter pointed out that the Islamic establishment appears to be able to suppress widespread anti-regime protests within days, but is unable to stop unnecessary inter-city travels to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Dr. Iraj Harirchi, a deputy health minister, called on people to help needy families and those who have lost their jobs, acknowledging that if total quarantine was imposed it was not certain that the government would be able to go door to door and provide people with necessities. He also claimed that in 13 provinces with a high rate of infection the number of cases was declining.
Harirchi said that soon after the coronavirus outbreak most of the test kits used in Iran had been gifts to the country and following that, Iran started buying kits. This claim contradicted earlier statements by Iranian health officials who had been saying since January 4 that they had been purchasing the kits. Harirchi then added that from that point on each test kit would cost €8, but this claim also contradicted a statement by the health ministry spokesman who, three days earlier, had said that Iran was going to produce the tests kits domestically in the coming week and would then sell them to other countries after domestic demand was satisfied.
Health official Saeed Namaki appointed Dr. Hamid Asaei to head a group to document the Covid-19 epidemic from its outbreak to the end of the crisis.
General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, reported that 1,200 coronavirus patients were hospitalized at military hospitals. “The Armed Forces has 4,200 hospital beds and 11,000 beds in recovery centers ready to help and admit patients,” he said.
In a letter to President Rouhani, Dr. Mostafa Moeen, President of Iran’s Medical Council, asked him to announce figures for coronavirus cases and its fatalities “transparently and honestly, broken down by cities and provinces.”
According to deputy interior minister Hossein Zolfaghari, President Rouhani has ordered that all new patients who test positive for coronavirus be quarantined. He said that restrictions on unnecessary traffic would continue until April 8 but, he pointed out, this does not mean that cities are quarantined. He added that certain restrictions that have been unilaterally imposed in a number of provinces led to problems and cannot continue.
In a TV interview, Tehran’s Mayor Pirouz Hanachi implicitly confirmed that the government’s reluctance was due to its economic weakness and was not based on science. According to him, quarantine was discussed during the Persian new year holiday but “the fact is that we are different from other countries in various aspects. Our economic situation is such that if something is shut down we cannot prepare a replacement for it.”
In a letter to Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Parliament, a group of specialist doctors and former administrators for the Iran Health Insurance Organization asked for an all-encompassing quarantine in Iran to stop coronavirus from spreading. According to them, mere inter-province restrictions on traffic was not being effective in cutting the chain of transmission and could be wasting precious time. They believed that people must be quarantined in their homes so that the chain of transmission would be cut in the shortest time possible.
Pointing out that that government repeatedly ignored advice to stop traffic between provinces, Hossein Ali Shahriari, a member of parliament’s health committee and a surgeon, said that by refusing to quarantine the country Rouhani was simply showing spite toward the Europeans. “The president did not accept the advice of five former health ministers, the current health minister and specialists to take decisive action in regards to coronavirus and insisted on his mistaken belief that we must not quarantine,” he said.
Hormozgan province’s Cyber Police arrested seven people on the charge of “publishing fake and stressful rumors” regarding the government’s actions to combat the coronavirus epidemic, including “the rumor of complete quarantine and the shutting down of Bandar Abbas businesses, which harmed people’s peace of mind, created a sense of insecurity and confused the public mind.”
Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmood Vaezi claimed that — with the closure of schools, the ban on religious gatherings and encouraging people to stay home — the “social distancing project” in Iran had gone into effect immediately following the outbreak of coronavirus.
Based on available evidence, this claim is utterly false. Regardless of when coronavirus was first identified in Iran, even if the official date of February 19 is accepted, what Vaezi says happened did not. Schools and educational centers were officially closed on March 6, and pilgrimage sites on March 14.
Vaezi was also lying about the government encouraging people to stay home. “From Saturday [March 1], the work and the activities of the country must continue as it has been during the last weeks and months,” said Rouhani on Tuesday, February 25.
One deputy health minister, Ghasem Jan-Babaei, announced that the curve of referrals, hospitalizations and fatalities related to coronavirus was falling “very slightly,” but confirmed that the number of those who tested positive for the virus was rising.
President Rouhani announced the extension of the social distancing project until April 8 and said that in the coming days the government would decide when and under what conditions provinces could reopen their offices and businesses. He added that individuals who were suspected of having been infected would be taken into convalescence centers.
By tradition, Iranians spend the 13th dayof the Persian new year picnicking outdoors. This year the day, called Sizdah Be-Dar, fell on April 1 and Aziz Akbarian, a member of the parliament from Alborz province, noted: “The commander of Tehran’s Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus has announced that nobody should leave home on Sizdah Be-Dar, whereas the governor of the province says that only parks and public gardens are closed. You cannot fight the disease with such double standards.”
According to Akbarian, pilgrims from outside the province were still going to Qom. “If Qom had been quarantined on the first day we would not have this coronavirus epidemic now,” he said.
Mohammad Hossein Ghorbani, member of the parliament’s health committee, said that the government was late in implementing its social distancing project. The government, he said, should have taken the advice of the health minister in the early days of the epidemic to enforce restrictions and to implement social distancing.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance announced that, in line with social distancing requirements, newspapers and magazines were banned from producing print versions until April 8 and instructed to instead strengthen their online publications.
Tehran province’s Governor Anooshirvan Mohseni Bandpey reported that the “project to gather up drug addicts and child laborers from the streets” had been stopped. Experts believed that stopping the project meant that these vulnerable groups were at this point defenseless in the face of the coronavirus epidemic.
Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for April 2020