Iranian medical professionals continue to contradict the Iranian regime’s claims that the coronavirus outbreak is well under control. Iranian regime began reopening its economy on April 11 after a lockdown that was briefer and more weakly enforced than all those that were imposed throughout the surrounding region. Experts warned of the potential for a massive surge in new cases and deaths, but plans went ahead all the same, while the regime’s officials relied on disinformation in order to limit public awareness of the consequences for ordinary Iranians.
Such disinformation has been part of the regime’s strategy for dealing with Covid-19 since the beginning. The trend began with outright denials that the virus had even reached Iran, then continued through efforts to downplay the impact, to blame foreign actors, and to portray Iran’s outcomes as being specifically better than those of Western countries.
The first public statement about a domestic outbreak came on February 19, following the deaths of two Covid-19 patients. But documents later obtained by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) showed that the first such cases had actually been registered by the National Emergency Organization about a month earlier. It is all but certain that the death toll had already started growing long before the first public statement, especially given that the risks had been blatantly ignored by the mullahs’ regime up until that point.
The delayed start date for the regime’s figures helps to explain the vast differences between official infection and mortality rates and the estimates provided by independent analysts. When Tehran could no longer conceal the crisis altogether, the number of reported deaths began rising steadily. But this happened only after an official in the city of Qom revealed that at least 50 deaths had taken place there while the regime’s Health Ministry was insisting that there been only a dozen across the entire nation. Since then, the official count has only continued to elaborate on an initial set of lies.
The result of this situation is a crisis that is at least six times worse than anything the regime has described in official statements. The Health Ministry’s estimates still puts the death toll at less than 8,000. But the NCRI reported that the number of fatalities had actually reached 49,000 by Wednesday, making it the second or third-worst affected country in the world – and the single worst as a function of its population. This description seems to be supported by the information that has reached foreign and independent media outlets from within Iranian hospitals.
In fact, these sorts of eyewitness accounts have bolstered the NCRI’s statements since the early days of the pandemic. Barely two weeks after the regime’s first public statement, an Iranian nurse made headlines by posting a video to social media in which she pleaded for help and urged greater public awareness, noting that 100 patients had died in a single day. That nurse was promptly arrested, silencing her personal story but also signaling that the regime did indeed have a great deal to hide.
— People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) (@Mojahedineng) June 3, 2020
She was not alone, either in leaking information about the severity of the crisis or in suffering consequences for it. Almost as soon as they acknowledged that the outbreak was happening, the
authorities took measures to discourage people from talking about it. The judiciary announced that “rumor mongers” would be punished with up to three years in prison, plus flogging. In early May, the country’s chief of police announced that 320 people were facing prosecution on precisely these grounds. There’s little doubt that many others suffered a similar fate in the intervening two months. Meanwhile, authorities also took aim at media platforms that allowed anyone to question their narrative. Newspapers were barred from publishing and well over 1,000 websites were shut down.
Remarkably, though, none of this has actually silenced the public, much less the medical professionals who are closest to the ongoing, unmanaged crisis. The deputy head of Ahvaz Medical Sciences University declared on Monday that 20 out of 28 cities in Khuzestan Province were still designated as “red” areas. Two days earlier, the dean of Isfahan Medical Sciences University said that his province had seen more than 1,000 deaths. He went on to note that doctors and nurses were owed months of back pay. Meanwhile, regime’s authorities refuse to provide financial assistance to the public, but declare that the crisis is under control and that no foreign aid is needed.
Sometimes, medical professionals speak out about this disinformation through semi-official news outlets. Still, each time they do so, they are putting themselves at great risk. While Tehran has declared its intention to punish “rumor mongers” with three years in prison, the actual penalty could easily stretch far beyond that in any case. The judiciary needs only to declare that they were insulting regime officials or demonstrating “enmity toward God” when they told the truth.
Under those conditions, and in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak that still threatens to kill tens of thousands of additional Iranians, outspoken doctors and nurses must be commended. But more than that, they cannot be allowed to carry the burden of this truth all on their own. Their rarely-heeded warnings about Iran’s struggle with Covid-19 are a challenge to the regime’s dominance of Iranian media and public discourse. But that dominance can only be overcome with assistance from the international community.
Toward that end, Western media must reject Iran’s official narratives. Furthermore, the World Health Organization and other public health experts must put pressure on the Iranian regime to allow them into the country, where they can provide an independent assessment of infection rates and mortality, as well as recommendations as to the course of action that will finally turn Iran away from its ongoing catastrophe.