By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Across Europe, North America, and Asia, a number of countries have begun to get their coronavirus outbreaks under control. Conditions vary from place to place, but one thing that is common to almost every government response is a recognition of the fact that there is still a long fight to come. A slower growth rate for new infections doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate to let down one’s guard or return to business as usual.
This understanding appears to have not reached Iranian officials, who just moved to reopen much of the national economy while overseeing what may be the worst outbreak of Covid-19 in the entire world.
Regime authorities claim to have posted more than a week of consecutive declines in the number of new cases. But this is highly dubious, as is every other official statement the Iranian regime has made on the topic. International media tends to rely on that regime when reporting upon the Iranian crisis, so it is commonly stated that the country just recently surpassed 4,600 coronavirus-related fatalities. But independent sources suggest that the actual death toll is much higher.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has been carefully tracking the virus’ impact by analyzing hospital records and collecting testimony from Iranian medical personnel and other direct witnesses to the outbreak. It has issued a number of recent reports indicating that the death toll has well exceeded 28,000.
This means the pandemic has caused more loss of life in Iran than in the United States, Italy, or any other single country. It also points to real infection rates that could likely be measured in the millions. The situation looks even worse when one controls for population. Iran’s population is less than third that of the US, yet it has had thousands more deaths and appears no closer to stopping the spread of the disease.
These facts mark Iran’s coronavirus outbreak as the world’s most out-of-control. And this, in turn, points to chronic mismanagement of the situation by regime authorities. That conclusion is plainly consistent with reports that the regime is sending people back to work – a move that health experts warn could put millions of additional Iranians at risk of sickness and death.
Reopening of the economy comes after the regime spent weeks ignoring the first domestic coronavirus infections and deliberately misinforming the public. The NCRI has released documents showing that authorities were aware of Covid-19 cases as early as January, before the country’s sham parliamentary elections and before state-organized gatherings celebrating the 41st anniversary of the Iranian revolution.
Not only did the regime fail to warn the public about the risk of voting or participating in those gatherings; it actively pushed for the highest possible turnout. Regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei went so far as to say that voting was a religious obligation. Fortunately, this statement failed to overcome the effects of an electoral boycott, but the historically low rate of voter participation might have been even lower if people had been aware of the threat posed by coronavirus.
And by the time of the election, a great deal of damage had already been done. Many thousands of Iranians had been crammed onto the streets of Tehran earlier in February. Although genuine support for the clerical regime is minuscule, authorities routinely make revolutionary festivities mandatory for government employees while offering money and other incentives to those who travel to the capital and appear before state television cameras. Such fabricated symbols of the regime’s legitimacy were considered even more important this year, coming in the wake of major protests against leading officials and the theocratic system as a whole.
As well as parting with some of its own wealth, the regime proved willing to expose untold numbers of Iranian citizens to a deadly infection in order to contradict the message of the November 2019 mass uprising and January 2020 student protests. It may therefore seem strange that the same regime was hardly willing to spend a dime in order to help its people survive when the inevitable outbreaks began to shut down Iranian society and bring an end to most commerce.
Regime’s financial support for the population has been estimated at around two-tenths of one percent of GDP – insignificant in comparison to the stimulus packages offered by countries that recognized their coronavirus outbreaks much earlier and then took much more aggressive steps to counter them. Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars in personal and corporate wealth. This remains largely untouched as the regime appeals to the international community for relief from sanctions that have never even prevented the import of humanitarian goods.
Such relief isn’t needed in order to increase the availability of those goods. All that is needed is for the regime to prioritize the welfare of its own people. But as has been proven time and time again over the past 41 years, the regime is incapable of doing so.
It should come as little surprise, then, that while overseeing the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world, regime’s message to the Iranian public is essentially, “You’re on your own.” That is why the people are being sent back to work. It is the only way they will avoid even worse poverty and mass starvation. But it will likely come at the expense of public health and many, many lives.
From regime’s perspective, there are only two alternatives to that outcome. Either the people remain at home without government support, leading inexorably to the next mass uprising, or else the government redirects money away from terrorism and other malign activities that are vital to its hold on power. Both alternatives pose an existential threat to the clerical regime. And the awful truth is that for the criminal mullahs, millions of preventable deaths would be preferable.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)