Iran: Coronavirus outbreak
On Friday, a spokesperson for Iran’s Health Ministry announced that the country had reported 2,102 new cases of Covid-19 over the previous 24 hours. This represents the highest single-day increase in a month, but it almost certainly fails to encapsulate the true severity of Iran’s coronavirus epidemic.
Critics of the theocratic regime tend to agree that it has been downplaying the rates of infection and the death toll since the day the outbreak was acknowledged. While the Health Ministry now claims that almost 90 percent of Covid-19 patients have recovered, with fewer than 7,000 cases having turned fatal, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reported on Friday that the real death toll had risen to at least 41,700.
As well as being six times higher than the official statistic, this estimate corresponds to a rate of infection that far exceeds anything the regime has entertained as a vague possibility. Officially, there have been just over 100,000 confirmed instances of coronavirus infection. But this reflects a fairly steady rate of increase from a month earlier, when a report prepared by the regime’s parliament seemed to confirm that the outbreak was much worse than had been reported up to that point.
The report noted that the death toll, then roughly 4,700 out of 76,000 cases, was likely double what had been reported in state media. Even earlier, one member of the Health Ministry task force assigned to the pandemic broke ranks with the official narrative in order to suggest that as many as half a million Iranians could have already contracted the novel coronavirus. But this also falls short of explaining the sorts of mortality rates that the NCRI has been recording.
The higher death toll points to an outbreak that has already directly impacted at least one percent of Iran’s population of 83 million people. Both the death toll and this overall infection rate are borne out by eyewitness testimony from Iranian doctors, nurses, and other private citizens. On social media and in conversation with independent journalists, many such individuals have described a healthcare system that is thoroughly overwhelmed, with patients being housed in hallways while morgues remain severely over-capacity.
There are notable limitations on the regime’s ability to cover up these details about how Iranians are personally experiencing the pandemic. But this certainly hasn’t stopped entities like the judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from silencing those who dare to criticize the government’s response or merely report the truth in the wake of an onslaught of misleading state media.
Last Wednesday, the regime’s chief of police, Hossein Ashtari, announced that at least 320 people were facing prosecution for the “crime” of disrupting public opinion” as it relates to the pandemic. The same announcement also noted that the Cyber Police had identified and “dealt decisively” with 1,300 websites that “spread rumors” about Covid-19.
Ashtari failed to elaborate on the prospective consequences for either individual defendants or larger entities that contradicted the regime’s official narratives. But in early March, less than two weeks after the Iranian regime first acknowledged that a coronavirus outbreak was active inside Iran, the judiciary announced that “rumor mongers” could be flogged and receive up to three years in prison. This did not diminish the threat of those same defendants being accused of more serious “crimes” related to their public disclosures, such as insulting Iranian officials, cooperating with “enemies” of the clerical regime, or demonstrating “enmity against God.” Such charges are routinely used to justify political prosecution, and they may result in sentences of many years in prison, or even death.
Additionally, the regime has developed a strong reputation for internet censorship, and its list of banned websites and social media platforms has never stopped growing. Access to Twitter has been officially disallowed since the 2009 protests, and the wildly popular messaging app Telegram joined the ban list in the aftermath of a nationwide uprising at the beginning of 2018. Filtered news websites are too numerous to name, but the disclosure of information about the coronavirus outbreak was made possible in part by the prevalence of technical workarounds that allow politically active Iranians to circumvent certain bans.
These resources will be as important as ever in the days ahead, as Tehran will surely continue to promote a false narrative of the coronavirus outbreak. Comparatively positive reports about the infection rate and death toll will help the regime to justify an ongoing course of action that could add tens of thousands of new deaths to the figures being collected by Resistance groups.
Those observing Iran’s situation should not be deceived by the regime’s acknowledgment of a recent spike in cases. There is no reason to believe that this stems from a sudden impulse toward accuracy. Instead, it underscores the fact that the situation is so far out of control that the regime can only distort the truth to a certain extent.
Since late February, the regime’s modus operandi has not been to deny that the outbreak is occurring but rather to obscure the public’s understanding of it. The official death toll has therefore fluctuated within a generally believable range. The fluctuation itself may even reflect reality, but it is occurring on a scale several times larger than what the regime is reporting.
The consequences of this situation have already been dire, in that it has discouraged some people from taking measures to protect themselves and others which would be justified by an outbreak that has killed tens of thousands of people. And although many of their fellow citizens have risked their lives and their freedom in order to sound the alarm, their voices can only travel so far without assistance.
There is much that the international community can do to amplify those voices and help prevent millions of Iranians from being consumed by the outbreak before they are fully aware of it. Western telecommunications companies can help to keep the internet widely accessible and free of restriction throughout much of Iran, while human rights groups can utilize those resources to reach Iran’s population with accurate details of the outbreak itself and also about regime’s aggressive crackdown on unbiased information.
In the meantime, it is also important for Western governments to keep up pressure on the Iranian regime in order to discourage that crackdown while also pushing for greater humanitarian access to Iranian hospitals, prisons, and Iranian society in general. The NCRI and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI /MEK) have been indispensable resources for understanding the severity of Iran’s outbreak so far. But the full picture may not come into focus until Iranian people remove the veil of secrecy that has been imposed on them by the regime.