In less than two weeks the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran has jumped from two to more than 2,300, shaking public trust in the Iranian regime’s capacity to contain the disease and exacerbating the country’s economic isolation.
After claiming the outbreak was under control a week ago, the number of officially reported cases has doubled almost daily and at least 77 people have now died, according to the latest official figures.
In a sign that a belated government response may be kicking into gear, Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, has said its hospitals will now be dedicated to admitting coronavirus patients and that they are ready to set up makeshift facilities with a further 8,000 beds. But medical professionals fear this is too little too late and that the delayed response has already enabled the virus to spread unchecked.
“Officials did not confirm the virus had reached Iran for one month, and then underestimated the impacts of the disease by telling people it is like a flu,” said a doctor in Khuzestan province, who has been treating coronavirus patients and expects to see a massive increase in deaths in the province later this week.
“The more the officials are scared of scaring people, the more the virus will spread and the country will be further paralysed,” the doctor said.
The first cases of the virus were confirmed in the holy city of Qom, home to 1.2m people, on 19 February but more than two weeks later the Islamic regime is still refusing to quarantine the town. Rather than avoid Qom, many religious people have continued to travel there. Some have shared videos online of pilgrims licking the gold-plated lattice windows that surround Qom’s holy tomb in the belief that the sacred site will cure infections rather than pass on the virus.
In an unprecedented intervention Iran’s supreme leader last week sought to curb such behaviour, signalling that Friday prayers in Iran’s major cities could be cancelled for the first time since the revolution in 1979.
Ayatollah Ahmad Marvi, the custodian of the holy shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad, said he would shut the site if instructed to by Tehran. Senior clergy in Qom have advised followers to listen to health officials but have not yet shut their shrine.
“Some radical figures . . . believe that this would go down in history [as a disgrace] if they abandoned the holy sites and ceased religious duties due to a disease outbreak,” explained Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a former Iranian vice-president and a cleric. “There are even some religious people in other parts of the country who think this is the time to show their loyalty to Islam and to Qom by travelling there in its difficult days.”
The delayed response and sudden spike in the number of confirmed cases in the last week has stoked suspicion that Iranian officials may have hid the existence of the outbreak and its extent for most of February. At least three parliamentarians have accused the government of understating the number of cases.
Iran’s health officials deny any cover-up but aspects of the Iranian outbreak are unusual. Based on official figures the mortality rate in Iran is the highest in the world, suggesting that either there are many more cases than are currently being recorded or that the virus is proving more deadly in Iran than elsewhere in the world.
Public panic has been exacerbated by the number of cases confirmed among senior political officials. At least 20 members of parliament, the vice-president of women’s affairs and the deputy health minister have all tested positive for the virus in the last week.
Socially, the impact of the outbreak has been varied. While the streets and restaurants in more affluent parts of the capital are deserted, people in poorer parts say they cannot afford to self-quarantine.
“Can I stay at home? Who is going to pay for the rent of this shop?” said a vegetable shopkeeper in downtown Tehran, which remains busy. “I am at risk, I know, but life and death are the same to me now.”
In Zabol, a town on the border with Afghanistan, Mahin said life had not changed at all. “People have no idea about the risks of the virus or say it is hot here and hence there is no risk.”
Many Iranians say the armed forces need to intervene more forcefully to impose internal travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, Iran’s economy is suffering. Trade with neighbouring states, vital in the face of crippling US sanctions, has been increasingly restricted as countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey have shut borders.
“In practice, the country is completely isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, even from our neighbours,” said one Iranian businessman. “This feels like sweeping sanctions are imposed on us, something the US could not do.”