Tehran faces accusations over coronavirus outbreak amid regime crisis

Concern grew after it was announced that the country's deputy health minister had also tested positive for the virus.
Sunday 01/03/2020
Iranian medical staff work at the state-run "13 Aban" pharmacy in Tehran on February 19. (AFP)
Iranian medical staff work at the state-run "13 Aban" pharmacy in Tehran on February 19. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Authorities in Iran, the country with the highest mortality rate from coronavirus infections, are facing accusations of mishandling the spiralling public health problem, a development that signals a new crisis of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic regime, analysts said.

Iranian officials on February 25 reported three more deaths from the virus, taking the number of fatalities to 16 since reporting the first case of the virus February 19. The death toll is the second-highest globally after China, where the virus emerged in December. Authorities rejected figures provided by a lawmaker from Qom, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, who was quoted by the semi-official ILNA news agency as saying the death toll was 50.

Even a calculation using the official number of fatalities out of 95 total cases suggests the virus is much more deadly in Iran than anywhere else. The World Health Organisation said the virus was fatal in 2% of infected cases. In Iran, Health Ministry figures indicate, the death toll represents almost 17% of reported infections.

The Health Ministry on February 25 called on Iranians to stay home because the virus was spreading. Authorities previously ordered the nationwide cancellation of concerts and football matches and the closure of schools and universities in many provinces as a precaution.

Concern grew after it was announced that the country's deputy health minister had also tested positive for the virus and was under quarantine. The government has yet to say how many people have been quarantined but the semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people had been hospitalised.

Other uncertainties put a further spotlight on what critics described as a poor response to the crisis. Five neighbouring countries of Iran reported their first cases of the virus the week of February 24, with those infected all having links to Iran, including direct travel from a city where Iranian authorities have not reported any confirmed case.

Infected travellers from Iran have been identified in Lebanon and Canada. Several countries halted flights to and from Iran, adding to a sense of isolation of a country that is under severe pressure by US sanctions.

Nader Hashemi, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver in the United States, said the debate about mismanagement in handling the virus outbreak was a serious blow for the government’s standing after the killing of hundreds of protesters during demonstrations against petrol price hikes in November and an attempt to cover up the responsibility of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January that killed 176 people, mostly Iranians.

“This is extremely significant because it comes against the backdrop of the two other major scandals,” Hashemi said by telephone. “It will further undermine the regime’s legitimacy.”

The virus crisis came to the foreground after voters turned parliamentary elections in Iran February 21 into a vote of no-confidence on the regime. The turnout, officially 42.6% of voters, was the lowest since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Hashemi and other observers said the real turnout may have been far lower.

Farahani said the government had failed in its response to the outbreak.

“I think the performance of the administration in controlling the virus has not been successful,” Farahani said, referring to the government of President Hassan Rohani. His comments represent the most public criticism yet levied against the government for its handling of the virus crisis.

“None of the nurses have access to proper protective gear,” Farahani said, adding that some health-care specialists had left Qom. “So far, I have not seen any particular action to confront [coronavirus] by the administration.”

The government in Tehran pledged to be transparent with figures concerning the virus to counter allegations of a coverup.

“We will announce any figures (we have) on the number of deaths throughout the country. We pledge to be transparent about the reporting of figures,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

Iranian Health Minister Saeed Namaki said travellers from China took the virus to Qom, a major destination for Shia pilgrims. Namaki told state TV that the Iranian who died from the virus was a merchant who regularly shuttled between the two countries using indirect flights in recent weeks, after Iran stopped direct passenger flights to China.

Hashemi said the focus of the Iranian leadership had not been on public health issues but on stage-managing the February 21 parliamentary elections. The vote ended with big gains for hardliners after many reformist and pragmatist politicians were banned from running.

“The regime has given up the facade of trying to claim there is some sort of democratic process,” Hashemi said. “It knows it has no majority support and it is relying on its core supporters to get it through these difficult days.”

Hashemi said it would be difficult for Iran to cover up potential mistakes by authorities in dealing with the coronavirus issue because the disease was in the global spotlight. “If the scandal gets any worse, it will further shake the regime,” he said.