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Experts fear coronavirus cover up in Iran

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, there is growing evidence of an extremely serious and growing impact in Iran. It is feared that sanctions imposed by the US may have weakened the capacity of the country’s medical sector to cope. JANE GREEN reports

SINCE first announcing the presence of coronavirus recently, Iran has reported a total of 388 cases and 34 deaths — a far higher fatality rate than seen elsewhere.

It is widely suspected that the official tally vastly underestimates the true number of cases. Iran has the highest number of coronavirus cases outside of China and South Korea.

A senior medical doctor at the Masih Daneshvari hospital in Tehran, the country’s top pulmonary public hospital and the main facility overseeing coronavirus patients, was keen to retain his anonymity but stated: “We think that this virus has been in Iran for the past three to four weeks and has circulated throughout the country. Right now in Iran we are facing a coronavirus epidemic.”

Medical teams are concerned that they do not have the means to test effectively or to screen potential cases. Testing kits were not available in Iran until last week due to the sanctions imposed upon the regime by the US.

Medical workers are also concerned that their equipment is badly outdated, a situation made worse by the US sanctions, although the US administration says “humanitarian and medical needs” are exempt from sanctions.

Nevertheless, many European companies fear doing business in Iran for fear of US retribution.

In addition, sanctions on Iranian banks make it difficult to carry out financial transactions with Europe. It can take three times longer to make a simple banking transaction with Europe under the newly imposed sanctions.

Ventilators and medicines are also in short supply as the scarcity of US dollars limits purchasing power. While the government has imposed some restrictions on holy sites and called off some Friday prayer services, President Hassan Rouhani has said there are no plans to quarantine entire cities hit by the virus or to take any further measures.

Due to the shortage of surgical masks and hand sanitiser in shops, public health experts say Iran could become the hub of a major outbreak across the Middle East, especially given its porous borders with unstable countries at war or in turmoil.

Studies by Human Rights Watch and other groups last year found the country’s healthcare sector was severely affected under the latest round of US sanctions, putting cancer and other patients in danger, without access to life-saving medicine.

Iran’s reported mortality rate for coronavirus, at just under 9 per cent, surpasses the rate for other countries by a wide margin. Earlier last week, it was 16 per cent.

However, precise figures for Iran are difficult to come by.

Mohammad Reza Ghadir, head of the Medical Science University in Qom, a city in which there has been a significant number of confirmed cases, said on state television that the Health Ministry had banned the release of numbers on the outbreak in the city.

Asked how many people had been placed in quarantine, Ghadir said: “The Health Ministry has told us not to announce any new statistics.”

The lack of clear reporting from Iran has prompted experts to raise concerns over whether there has been an official cover-up of the scale of the epidemic, and whether the country will be able to contain the disease and its virulent spread.

The response of the leadership of the regime has not inspired confidence, with the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, playing down the outbreak, accusing Tehran’s enemies of playing up “negative propaganda” over the coronavirus threat so as to undermine recent parliamentary elections.

The lack of concern shown by the regime is underlined by the fact that nine flights were made to China by Mahan Air, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps associated airline, without any official permit, in the fortnight prior to the Iranian government’s acknowledgement of the presence of coronavirus inside Iran.

This was despite a rule having been made by the Iranian government supposedly suspending all flights between Iran and China. The passengers on these flights were not subject to quarantine or any control whatsoever upon their return to Iran.

However, given the growing international concerns and the prospect of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a coronavirus pandemic, there have been growing calls upon the US to ease its restrictions on humanitarian trade with Iran, which would allow China and other Tehran-friendly countries, like Russia, to provide medical and humanitarian aid to the Islamic Republic before the disease escalates into a greater crisis in the region.

Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies programme, told reporters last week that the virus “came unseen and undetected into Iran, so the extent of infection may be broader than what we may be seeing.”

If the situation in Iran continues to deteriorate, the US will come under mounting international pressure to remove some of its sanctions to allow humanitarian aid in.

Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, said last week: “The Trump administration will face a moral dilemma: whether to remove some of the pressure on Iran or face international condemnation for putting millions at risk.”

Luft also expressed concern that, as fears of a global pandemic grow and countries stockpile face masks and other medical equipment, it could be hard for other nations to actually help Iran effectively.

In an ironic twist, Iranian state media said last week that a member of the Iranian parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi, and the country’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, who led a task force battling the virus, had both tested positive.

The news came a day after Harirchi appeared at a news conference looking feverish, reaching for tissues to wipe his brow. He wore no mask as the ministry spokesman standing next to him expressed confidence about the government’s response to the crisis.

It has since been confirmed that the country’s vice-president, Masoumeh Ebtekar, has also tested positive for the virus.

Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur called on Iranians to avoid making “unnecessary trips inside the country,” while Iran’s neighbours have closed their borders.

The UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Estonia have all recorded new cases of the virus in people travelling from Iran. Canada has also reported that an Iranian passenger infected by the virus has transmitted the deadly Coronavirus in the country.

Globally, more than 80,000 people in nearly 50 countries have been infected with the coronavirus. Nearly 2,800 have died, the majority in China’s Hubei province.

Jane Green is a member of the National Executive Council of CODIR. For information on Iran and views and news from CODIR visit: codir.net and/ or contact codir_info@btinternet.com.

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