Iranian authorities warn about 'millions' of virus deaths but face credibility problem

Iranian authorities are accused of having ignored and downplayed the danger after the first virus cases were recorded February 19.
Sunday 22/03/2020
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani holds a video conference meeting with the Minister of Health and other officials regarding the measures taken to hamper the spread of coronavirus. (dpa)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani holds a video conference meeting with the Minister of Health and other officials regarding the measures taken to hamper the spread of coronavirus. (dpa)

ISTANBUL - Iran is facing a possible catastrophe as officials warned of a collapse of the country’s health system and a scientific study cited by state television said millions could die as the coronavirus spreads.

One concern is that widespread travel within the country for Nowruz -- the Persian New Year -- on March 21 could exacerbate the grave situation.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa March 17 prohibiting "unnecessary" travel.

“Stay at home… Shopping for the New Year is like committing suicide these days,” a Health Ministry official told state television, which said millions of Iranians could die of the virus if people travelled for the New Year holidays.

Large gatherings for Friday prayers have been cancelled across the country, the ministry said, and Shia Muslim sites and shrines in Mashhad and Qom have been closed.

Iranian leaders have a hard time being listened to because they have a serious credibility problem with their citizens, including being accused of having ignored and downplayed the danger after the first virus cases were recorded February 19.

Iran experts said the regime wanted before anything else to secure mass turnouts for anniversary celebrations of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and for parliamentary elections.

The death toll in Iran from the coronavirus reached 853 by March 17 and 14,991 people have been confirmed infected. Only China and Italy have more fatalities.

“If the trend continues, there will not be enough capacity,” Ali Reza Zali, the government official leading the campaign against the outbreak, was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA news agency.

Omid Rezaee, an Iranian journalist in Germany, said no one in Iran believed that official statements reflected the truth.

“In fact, the health system has already broken down,” Rezaee said via e-mail. “Not a day goes by without several health workers dying of coronavirus.” He said his contacts in Iran told him that there were no ambulances left for non-corona-related patients.

Things could get much worse.

Afruz Eslami, an Iranian state TV journalist who is a medical doctor, cited a study by Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology that offered three scenarios. If people begin to cooperate now, Iran will see 120,000 infections and 12,000 deaths before the outbreak is over, she said. If they offer medium cooperation, there would be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths, she said.

If people fail to follow any guidance, it could collapse Iran’s already-strained medical system, Eslami said. If the “medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be 4 million cases and 3.5 million people will die,” she said.

Eslami did not elaborate on what metrics the study used but even reporting it on Iran’s tightly controlled state television represented a major change for a country whose officials had denied the severity of the crisis.

In an effort to stop the virus, the government temporarily freed about 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners. On March 10, Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, asked Tehran to free all political prisoners temporarily from its overcrowded and disease-ridden jails to help stem the spread of coronavirus

Tehran blames US sanctions, imposed after Washington left the 2015 international agreement aimed at stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, for setbacks in the fight against the virus.

In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 12, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote that Iran suffered “under the most severe and indiscriminate campaign of economic terrorism in history.”

However, Rezaee said US sanctions, while causing restrictions for Iran, were not the real reason for Iran’s inability to limit the number of infections and deaths.

"A key reason for the outbreak in Iran was that the government denied the presence of the virus in the country for a long time because of the anniversary of the revolution and because of the elections,” Rezaee said. “Sanctions don’t have anything to do with that.”

Another reason was a lack of government investment in the health sector in recent years, Rezaee added.

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