Something is rotten in the state of Persia: the Islamic Republic of Iran is engaging in a large-scale cover-up of the coronavirus epidemic that could wreak misery on the lives of millions.
If we take the government’s claims at face value, the coronavirus outbreak in Iran went from zero cases to 95 infections and 15 dead, the highest death toll outside China, in about a week.
If true, these figures give a mortality rate of about 15 percent -- an extraordinary number compared to the Chinese and global average of 2 percent. Even worse, if 15 people have really died, this would suggest at least 750 and maybe as many as 1,500 people are infected in the country, according to a Harvard professor of epidemiology speaking to Al Arabiya English. The government doesn’t seem to know or care where these people are or what they are doing.
Adding to doubts over the official numbers, the MP for the Iranian city of Qom said 50 people had died from the disease in his city alone, versus the official toll of 15.
Remarkably, only today, two senior government officials have announced that they tested positive for the virus. The first was Iran’s deputy minister of health, Iraj Harirchi, and the second is prominent member of parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi.
The glaring discrepancies are the result of incompetence or deception. My guess, based on years of watching this sclerotic regime, is that it is probably both. It seems Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state who today accused Iran of suppressing vital details about the outbreak, agrees with me.
Two days ago, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accused the foreign media of using the coronavirus issue to stop people from going to vote in parliamentary elections. On his official website, he wrote: “Under the pretext of an illness and a virus, their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting.”
In other words, the wellbeing of Iran’s ruling order is more important than Iranian lives, Arab lives or indeed the risk of a global pandemic.
What is happening inside Iran matters because the outbreak is not limited to one country. It is a global problem and people are still travelling in and out of affected areas inside Iran.
Today, 27 people in six Arab countries have already been infected with coronavirus after visiting Iran. The Iraqi Health Ministry confirmed another case today of an Iranian student in Iraq. Three infected in Kuwait had recently returned from Iran. Some affected countries, like Kuwait, have the money and organization to cope. But what of Afghanistan, right next door? An outbreak could be devastating in such a country.
The Iranian regime has never had a good track record of honesty, but in the past few weeks, the paranoia and delusion of its rulers has worsened.
First came the government's reaction to mass anti-government demonstrations in November – a violent crackdown that killed at least 1,500 people.
A real shock soon followed, with the spectacular assassination of its top agent provocateur. The commander of the Quds Force, the overseas arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), stomped around countries of the Arab world, arrogant in his belief that he could wage war without facing the consequences. That impunity ended early one morning in Baghdad.
The death of Qassem Soleimani shook the regime and it began to display increasingly erratic behavior. So badly organized was his burial that fifty people were killed in a stampede. Immediately afterwards, when the armed forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane just after take-off from Tehran’s airport, killing all 176 people on board, the regime went into lockdown. For days, the Iranian authorities denied what video footage clearly showed, compounding the suffering of its own citizens while they mourned.
This is not a government that can be trusted to tell the truth, even when lives are at stake. If the regime would do that over an accident, is there any doubt it would seek to cover up the extent of the coronavirus outbreak, which has surely been worsened by its own incompetence? This is a regime that cynically suggested the coronavirus outbreak was a reason for the historically low turnout in last week's election, rather than understandable voter apathy and exhaustion with its incompetent rule.
In fact, the regime appears to be in denial. Has it learned nothing from its disastrous handling of the Ukrainian plane tragedy? Then, the mass protests seen were expressions of anger in how badly the government behaved, lying and then seeking to hide the truth. The same could easily happen if it turns out the full extent of the coronavirus outbreak is being suppressed.
The epidemic is causing episodes of panic in airports as passengers traveling from Iran are escorted to quarantine, and mass disruption around the world and inside Iran. But out of step with the world, out of touch with reality and disconnected from the concerns even of their own people, the geriatric ruling order refuses to respond in a competent or humane manner.
Once again, the Iranian regime has chosen not to play its part in the international community, to show it can play by the rules of the rest of the world. Once again it appears Iran's rulers want to go their own way at the expense of Iranian and Arab lives, no matter how many.
Illustration by Steven CastellucciaSHOW MORE