Iran's coronavirus cover-up: is it now the epicenter of the virus?

For many Iranians, life has been put on hold as the coronavirus – formally known as COVID-19 – proliferates like wildfire through their closed country. But Tehran's top brass has so far painted a dangerously obscured picture, critics contend.

Official numbers have continued to escalate with each passing day. As of Tuesday, health ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour raised the death toll to 291 amid 8,042 cases, the fourth-highest death toll in the world. Yet many analysts suspect the numbers are vastly higher, both in incidents and fatalities.

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"The situation is very difficult; the authorities do not provide the exact figures of the dead," said one 30-something professional in Mazandaran, the third most impacted province. "They have even arrested a staff member who shot film inside a hospital, where you could see it was filled with dead people inside a cellar," said the local. "And the situation is much worse now. Hospitals (everywhere) are at capacity. No one is reporting the real death toll."

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 photo, some Shiite pilgrims visit the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq, The Health Ministry said four new cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in the northern province of Kirkuk. It said the afflicted were members of an Iraqi family who had returned from a recent trip to Iran. Iraq announced the discovery of the first coronavirus case in the country on Monday in Najaf. Iraq had earlier closed its border with Iran to Iranian nationals but apparently Iraqis can still cross the boundary. 

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 photo, some Shiite pilgrims visit the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq, The Health Ministry said four new cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in the northern province of Kirkuk. It said the afflicted were members of an Iraqi family who had returned from a recent trip to Iran. Iraq announced the discovery of the first coronavirus case in the country on Monday in Najaf. Iraq had earlier closed its border with Iran to Iranian nationals but apparently Iraqis can still cross the boundary.  (AP)

In his view, the government fears more mass regime protests should the actual severity of the issue be brought to light.

"Nobody believes the numbers coming out of Tehran," said Matthew Schmidt, national security and political science expert at the University of New Haven. "It may well be that Iran is now the epicenter of the outbreak. The government has and continues to misreport the number of cases and deaths. But this is due as much to incompetence as a cover-up."

Videos of health care professionals painfully detailing the severity of the problem have also appeared online in recent weeks. In one video that went viral, a young and tearful nurse can be seen begging fellow Iranians to stay indoors, vowing that she had seen dozens die in just one morning as a result of coronavirus.

The Iranian Health Ministry on both Sunday and Monday this week said that more than 40 people had died of coronavirus on each of those days, with Tehran province deemed the most heavily infected. The health minister has said that 16,000 people are being treated for the virus in hospitals, but it is unclear how many more may be quarantined at home.

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Some public officials have even questioned the figures as being alarmingly low, with a spokesperson for the health minister at one point being forced to retract a statement that hundreds in one province alone had died, changing his comments to indicate that the casualties were from "other" diseases.

But why would the Iranian regime attempt to conceal the outbreak from the outset?

"The reason is simple: if there were a rapid response to properly quarantine patients in Iran, there would be a lower turnout for the elections that are presently occurring, and this would mar the appearance of electoral legitimacy that Iran is trying to maintain," Dr. Norman Fried, medical expert and professor at Columbia University, told Fox News.

The first official case in Iran, involving a public official, was brought to light on Feb. 19. At least 24 members of parliament – around 10 percent – have since come down with coronavirus, three of whom have died.

Some speculate the virus was circulating and known to the government much earlier in February, but its prevalence was suppressed in the lead-up to elections. On Feb. 21, Tehran held a spate of what most international observers consider to be corrupted elections – given that only government-stamped candidates made the ballot. The leadership was already pushing back against concerns of low voter turnout and objections of scamming, with policy experts contending it did not want to exacerbate small numbers.

The leadership, from the beginning, vowed to punish any individuals who dared speak up about the scale of the problem, which officials said was akin to "spreading rumors."

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Other Iranians expressed exasperation that some religious leaders were – rather than deterring people from gathering for prayers – advocating the healing qualities of visiting shrines. Nonetheless, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, canceled his speech in celebration of the Persian New Year later this month. It had been scheduled to take place before a large crowd in Mashhad.

According to an analysis published this week by The Atlantic, as of the beginning of March, 7.9 percent of Iranian parliament members – 23 out of 290 – had contracted the virus. State media reports that each case was contracted from the official's home province, rather than passed on to and from each other.

Those figures, if applied to Iran's population, would come to 6.4 million cases.

Moreover, the article points out that Canada, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates have also documented cases that had their origins in Iran. Several other nations, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, have said that at least some of their cases also came from Iran.

International experts also expressed concern over the pariah country's ability to battle the outbreak.

"Iran has capable doctors and nurses, but a healthcare system depleted by poverty and sanctions," noted Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities. "The U.S. should have thoroughly relaxed sanctions to help Iranian citizens cope as soon as the virus hit."

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, photo, a man disinfects the shrine of Saint Masoumeh against coronavirus in the city of Qom 78 miles (125 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. Iran's government said Monday that 12 people had died nationwide from the new coronavirus, rejecting claims of a much higher death toll of 50 by a lawmaker from the city of Qom that has been at the epicenter of the virus in the country. (Ahmad Zohrabi/ISNA via AP)

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, photo, a man disinfects the shrine of Saint Masoumeh against coronavirus in the city of Qom 78 miles (125 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. Iran's government said Monday that 12 people had died nationwide from the new coronavirus, rejecting claims of a much higher death toll of 50 by a lawmaker from the city of Qom that has been at the epicenter of the virus in the country. (Ahmad Zohrabi/ISNA via AP)

Others were somewhat more scathing toward the top brass of Tehran. Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), underscored that "the Iranian government has thus far been its own worst enemy."

"There is a pending U.S. offer of assistance, which has been reportedly conveyed to Tehran through the Swiss embassy. Instead of accepting, Iran is deflecting," he continued. "It's accusing the U.S. government of using the coronavirus as a biological weapon. There is a precedent for the U.S. sending assistance to Iran during natural disasters, such as during the 2003 Bam earthquake during the Bush administration."

Earlier this month, U.S. officials extended an olive branch to assist the nemesis nation in its response to the epidemic, but to date Tehran has dismissed external intervention.

Despite the grim scenario, many healthcare workers in the pathogen-ravaged regions of Tehran are bravely purporting to lighten the mood by posting an array of fun-filled dance performances. In a series of clips posted online in recent weeks, medical staff donning surgical masks and scrubs – their identities clearly disguised given the regime's prohibition on such music and movements – can be seen moving and twirling to Persian pop tracks.

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"They care for the sick and at the same time, keep up the morale of their countrymen and their own families," wrote reformist activist Azar Mansouri.

Nonetheless, an uptick of measures has been put in place in the quest to halt the burgeoning problem.

Most international flights to and from the country have been grounded, and the country's schools and universities have been shuttered until at least early next month. Individual provinces known to have a rash of cases have erected roadblocks.

Nonetheless, no wide-reaching restrictions or lockdowns have put into effect, a far cry from the way China and Italy have addressed the crisis.

Dr. Dena Grayson, a Florida-based doctor who has long studied infectious diseases, pointed out that, unfortunately, multiple countries, including Iran, did not learn the recent lesson from China.

"Not disclosing the true severity of this pandemic and not acting decisively and quickly only leads to more infections and deaths," she said.

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And with that, Iran – along with much of the world – still has a long road ahead in combating the epidemic.

"Cases of this deadly, new coronavirus will come in seasonal waves, with the first wave in the Northern Hemisphere subsiding in the summer months. During our summer, we should expect an explosion of cases in the Southern Hemisphere as its flu season begins, which favors person-to-person spread of the virus in the community. In the fall, the virus will boomerang back to the Northern Hemisphere, causing a second, much larger and more deadly wave of infections," she added. "Unless and until a vaccine is available, we should expect this coronavirus to continue to spread globally."