Virus and Public Mistrust Cripple Iran

As the world reels from the impact of COVID-19, the pandemic’s devastation seems even more pronounced in certain countries, not the least of which is Iran. According to research from Johns Hopkins University, Iran had 38,309 confirmed infections and 2,640 deaths as of Mar. 29, the number climbing by the hundreds daily. In mid-March Iran had the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East and the most cases outside of China and Italy, leading many to question Iranian leaders’ handling of the virus early on.

The country’s first major outbreak was in the religious capital of Qom, which led quickly to a shortage of medical supplies and space to tend to the sick and deceased. Sobering images of body bags piled up outside morgues at full capacity, doctors without personal protective equipment treating patients and infected members of the Iranian government began to surface and circulate global media coverage, shocking the world.

Criticism toward Iran’s handling of the outbreak spread from Qom to other major cities like Tehran and the rest of the country within a matter of days. Iran’s seeming prioritization of diplomatic and economic ties with China over their citizens’ wellbeing especially provoked disapproval. Although Iranian Health Minister Saeed Nemaki announced a halt to round-trip travel between Iran and China on Jan. 31, the government did little to enforce the measure, allowing airlines to carry on “business as usual” until Feb. 23, according to Foreign Policy.

Additionally, world leaders and the Iranian public cite concerns over the Iranian government’s possible withholding of information surrounding the pandemic. For example, Iran publicly confirmed their first deaths linked to COVID-19 on Feb. 19, without having confirmed any infections beforehand. The misinformation only continued—on Feb. 24, an Iranian lawmaker reported there had been 50 deaths in Qom alone, just hours before health minister Nemaki announced a national total of only 12 deaths.

A satellite image of a newly constructed mass-burial site in Qom, near Tehran, made in late February to accommodate the rapid increase in coronavirus-related fatalities.

Iranian distrust of the government seems to be at an all-time high, coming even from domestic medical staff. In an interview with Time, medics at a Tehran hospital asked to maintain anonymity, claiming that other medical staffers’ phones had been tapped by government authorities. Greater distrust surrounds the Iranian government’s reporting of the pandemic’s effect on the country. One pulmonologist in Tehran said, “There is absolutely no doubt that the number of sick people is much higher [than the government admits].”

Firefighters in Tehran, Iran chemically disinfect streets in efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 within city limits.

Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that the Iranian government has been and continues to underestimate their number of deaths and infections related to coronavirus due to lack of testing. In fact, WHO Director of Emergency Operations Dr. Rick Brennan said, “The number of cases reported could represent only about a fifth of the real numbers.”

Experts maintain that current Iranian measures to curb the disease, which have certainly ramped up since the first outbreak, are still not enough. Scientists at the University of New South Wales predict that Iran may have 48 million COVID-19 infections by late June even with current efforts, which would amount to more than half of the Iranian population.

Lack of proper governmental response has not been the only issue in Iran’s struggle with the pandemic. The aforementioned public distrust of the government itself poses a threat, with the Iranian public reportedly attempting to consume “bootleg methanol” against national medical advice, leading to hundreds of deaths, according to the New York Times.

The troubling reports coming from Iran just a week ago, however, now seem to be mirrored in the rest of the world. Infections in Europe and the United States have accelerated exponentially alongside national fear, as U.S. testing still seems severely limited. WHO officials warn that other medical systems are likely to feel the same strain as Iran has felt, a reality already on full display in cities like New York.

Images courtesy of NPR, the Washington Post, and Business Insider

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