The international community needs to start paying closer attention to the discrepancy between the Iranian regime’s coronavirus narrative and the reports coming from the Iranian Resistance independent sources inside the country. According to the regime’s Health Ministry, the total number of infections is around 200,000, while the death toll is very slowly creeping toward 10,000. But the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) has collected information from Iranian medical staff and ordinary citizens which points to an infection rate in the millions, and a death toll more than six times higher than the official figure.
The MEK and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), reported on Saturday that at least 53,900 people had died from the outbreak in Iran. These statistics are made all the more alarming by the fact that regime’s officials have actually begun acknowledging an uptick in new infections during recent weeks. Their slightly less rosy picture of the crisis began to emerge roughly a month after major and forced re-openings of Iran’s economic and social life. Yet the regime has shown no sign of willingness to reverse course on a policy that could lead to millions of additional infections and tens of thousands of new deaths.
While the regime’s Health Ministry is now warning of prospects for a “second wave” of the local Covid-19 epidemic, its broader message is only one of public caution in the face of policies that continue to prioritize financial outcomes and a general sense of normality ahead of the basic welfare of the Iranian people. The Iranian regime’s health officials and political leaders have blatantly joined in saying that if there is a resurgence in the infection rate, the responsibility will belong to citizens who failed to follow protocols, and not to the regime that announced vague and questionable protocols and declined using its vast resources to help people, in the first place.
Meanwhile, even as official statements convey warnings about persistent danger, they also continue to laud the clerical regime’s response to the crisis, even alleging that mullahs’ regime has managed the global pandemic far better than its Western adversaries. Of course, this narrative is nothing but a baseless claim which is not even meaningfully supported by the regime’s official infection rates and death toll estimates. This is especially true in light of a clearly deficient testing regime and a population of 82 million in which more than half of the people are under 30 years old.
Furthermore, Iran’s official success story is conclusively disproven by the mortality estimates and supporting information provided by the MEK activists and others. The estimate of more than 53,900 deaths stems from disclosures by Iranian doctors and nurses who have risked arrest by speaking out publicly about their experiences with a severely overwhelmed healthcare system. It also reflects the outcome of statistical models based on an earlier start date and more rapid initial spread of disease than has ever been acknowledged by Tehran.
The Health Ministry’s first public statements regarding coronavirus in Iran were issued on February 19. But documents obtained by the MEK revealed that suspected cases of coronavirus infection had been admitted to Iranian hospitals as much as a month earlier. And while Tehran insisted that the number of fatal cases had barely reached double-digits by the end of February, certain local sources indicated that in places like the holy city of Qom, dozens of Covid-19 deaths had already been recorded, and that local morgues were exceeding capacity.
The Iranian regime’s judiciary quickly responded to these disclosures by warning that “rumor mongering” on the topic of the virus would be punished with flogging and up to three years in prison. In May, the head of the national police force publicly announced that 320 people were facing prosecution on this charge, and that over 1,000 websites and social media groups had been shut down for hosting information that contradicted the regime’s narrative.
That announcement almost certainly represents only a portion of the crackdowns that Tehran has perpetrated against those who have tried to slow the spread of state-sponsored disinformation. And those crackdowns are a stark reminder of the international community’s responsibility for helping the Iranian people to overcome repression and protect themselves against crises that are sure to grow worse as long as the mullahs’ policies are left unchecked.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran has essentially been calling out for international attention to the Resistance’s Covid-19 disclosures since February, but the international community has taken not action. The silence among Western news outlets and Western policymakers is indicative of a longstanding habit of repeating the claims offered by Iranian state media, sans any contrary information provided by the Resistance. That habit has warped the public understanding of Iranian affairs for nearly four decades, with unfortunate consequences for the Iranian people, as well as for global security and the prospects of democratic governance in the Middle East.
Because coronavirus has dominated international news since the beginning of the year, it is a particularly unmistakable example of areas in which international coverage of Iran can improve. But in the long run, the process of closing the gap between official and unofficial statistics should lead to a more general reevaluation of how information reaches the world from inside Iran.
On this and many other topics, the Iranian Resistance has been unfairly and inexplicably sidelined for far too long. Through its communication with activists, doctors, and ordinary citizens, the Resistance has consistently proven to be a vital conduit for the voices and experiences of the Iranian people themselves. No news story about Iranian affairs can be considered accurate or complete as long as those voices are missing, especially at a time when they are suffering greatly as a result of their government’s incompetence, negligence, and contempt for the people’s welfare.
The Iranian regime has showed it has no intention of saving people’s lives. Instead, it uses the coronavirus outbreak as a tool of oppression. The regime’s mismanagement has turned Iran into an epicenter of this virus in the region. The avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Iran and prevent the virus from spreading across the region and the world, the international community must act immediately. The regime is the root of this crisis and all other natural and political crises in the Middle East, therefore the international community should stand for a durable solution which the regime’s downfall by the Iranian people and their resistance movement.