While Iran scrambles to keep the outbreak of the coronavirus contained, it also battles allegations from both within and outside the government.
Iran first reported three confirmed cases of coronavirus on February 20, a day after two elderly nationals in Qom died of the disease. On Sunday, Iran reported 12 coronavirus-related deaths and 61 infections. It has since become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East with 95 confirmed cases and a national death toll of 16 as of Tuesday, the highest outside of China.
On Monday, an Iranian parliamentarian slammed the national death count, claiming that 50 people have already died of the disease in the holy city of Qom where the majority of the cases have been detected.
“Up until last night, around 50 people died from coronavirus. The health minister is to blame,” MP Amirabadi Farhani said, according to the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA).
Farhani, who represented Qom in the Iranian parliament, also said that 10 people die in his city everyday due to the outbreak.
“Coronavirus has been in Qom since three weeks ago and the outbreak was announced late,” he added.
Another MP from Qom, Alireza Zakani, claimed that while the official test results haven’t come out yet, 27 of the 42 deaths in the holy city in the past couple of weeks, are suspected to have been due to the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Iranian media reported that there are at least 916 patients suspected to have the disease just as the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted China and Iran for suppressing the truth about the spread of the coronavirus in their localities.
“All nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organizations,” Pompeo told reporters, according to the Associated Press.
Iran’s health ministry rejected Farhani’s accusations on Monday afternoon but also revised the total number of cases then from 47 to 61.
“I categorically deny this information,” Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said in a news conference aired live on state television. “This is not the time for political confrontations. The coronavirus is a national problem.”
Harirchi also said, “If the number of coronavirus victims in Qom is a quarter of what media outlets are reporting, I will resign. The figure is incorrect, and we are sure of our statistics.”
Government spokesperson Ali Rabiei stood alongside the health minister and said, “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.”
Dorsa Jabbari, reporting for Al Jazeera in Tehran, noted the Iranians’ skepticism and distrust despite the government’s pledge to be transparent.
“There’s a lot of doubt among the public about how transparent this government and this health ministry has been, because they have the memories of not too far away of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner that was shot down,” said Jabbari, referring to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ accidental shooting last month of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 where all 176 people on board were killed.
“The Iranian officials denied for three days they had anything to do with that incident,” she added. “So there is that memory still very fresh in people’s minds.”
Since Monday, five Middle Eastern countries have reported their first confirmed cases, all of which involved people who came from Iran.
Fadi El-Jardali, director of the Knowledge to Policy Center in Lebanon, stressed the importance of transparency to combat the outbreak in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
“Countries should declare what is happening and not hide any information. This is a public health issue … People should be provided updated information, not to make them panic, but to give them good guidance for assessment and treatment,” he said, according to Al Jazeera.
The day after he appeared on a televised press conference, Iran’s health minister announced on social media that he also contracted the virus.
“I too have been infected with coronavirus,” said Harirchi in what seemed like a self-shot video. “I had a fever as of last night and my preliminary test was positive around midnight. I’ve isolated myself in a place since. A few minutes ago, I was told that my final test was final, and now I am starting medication.”
“My corona test is positive … I don’t have a lot of hope of continuing life in this world,” Mahmoud Sadeghi wrote on Twitter.
Sadeghi also asked that the country’s prisoners be set free so they can spend the remaining of their lives with their families during the outbreak.
In response to the outbreak, authorities have already designated 230 hospitals nationwide, closed schools and universities in Qom, cancelled public events, and have begun disinfecting the Tehran Metro rail every night.
Farhani, however, criticized the government’s slow response and stated that the country was ill prepared to handle the crisis.
“Qom is in a poor state and the government has been unsuccessful in controlling the coronavirus outbreak,” said the MP. “Nurses currently do not have proper quarantine clothing and are treating patients with fear and anxiety,”
The country has 1.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people and does not have sufficient medical equipment. U.S. sanctions on Iran crippled the country’s economy and hamper the flow of medical equipment to the country.
Hasnain Malik, Managing director for frontier markets equity strategy at Tellimer in Dubai, said the country is “less able to access quality-assured medical equipment and countermeasures necessary for combating the outbreak… and so is more limited in its response capacity than some neighboring countries.”
“Iran is perhaps the first example of a high incidence of COVID-19 in a country with relatively weak public health infrastructure,” Malik told CNBC. “It is inevitable that we will see more examples across Asia and, perhaps, Africa.”