Tehran surprised international health authorities yesterday when the Associated Press reported that two Iranians had died in the Iranian city of Qoms after succumbing to COVID-19. Early speculation that the cases might be foreigners, perhaps Chinese nationals, was quickly dispelled: Two Iranians with no recent history of traveling abroad had somehow contracted the virus.
And so far, the Iranian government hasn't offered any kind of explanation as to how this might have happened. China is a major trading partner for Iran, but it's chief interest is oil. To oversee the Islamic Republic's response to the virus, Rouhani has formed a committee that will include Iran's ministers of health and roads, in addition to "representation" from the military and IRGC. The government is also imposing 'emergency measures,' though it wasn't immediately clear what these would include.
In Qoms, which is the capital of a broader province with the same name, Iranian officials closed schools and imposed emergency measures across the north-central province, WSJ reports.
By the time Tehran confirmed a fifth case on Thursday, observers were warning that a severe outbreak could easily overwhelm Iran's health care system, strained as it is by the sanctions-induced economic crisis that has hamstrung the country's economy.
Specifically, a government spokesman confirmed that the three surviving patients are in Qoms and Arak, another province not too far from Qoms. Two of the patients are in Qoms, one is in Arak.
ابتلای دو نفر در #قم و یکنفر در اراک به #کووید_۱۹ تایید شد. تاکنون تعداد موارد قطعی ابتلا به #COVID_19 در ایران به پنج نفر رسیده است.— Kianush Jahanpur (@drjahanpur) February 20, 2020
مورد مبتلا به #کروناویروس در شهر اراک از همکاران عزیز جامعه پزشکی است.
Rumors also claimed that a recent metro station closing in Tehran was related to the top-secret transport of a patient suspected of infection.
Other countries in the region have reported cases of the virus, including the UAE and Egypt. But how it made it this far is unclear.
One New York Times reporter reported that the brother of one of the deceased patients in Qoms disputed the government's claim that the two Iranians who died were both elderly in poor health. According to this reporter's source, one of the victims was 60 and relatively healthy. The man repeats those claims in the video below.
Qom, Iran - a #coronavirus patient is in the intensive care at the local hospital. The video was recorded by the brother of a patient, Dr. Mohammad Molaei. The 60-year-old patient, a retired teacher has died. No history of traveling abroad or any contact with any Chinese person. pic.twitter.com/QRneO5gAjp— Max Howroute▫️ (@howroute) February 20, 2020
She also reported that Iranians are furious at their government for initially withholding information about the outbreak, and many feel that public health officials aren't doing enough to stop the spread. For example, a domestic airline is still running flights to China.
Coronavirus cases increase in #Iran. 3 in Qom, 1 in Arak, 5 suspected transferred to Tehran. Lack of transparency about how & when virus entered & spreading & why public wasn't informed earlier is infuriating Iranians afresh.— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) February 20, 2020
2/ Iranians saying they don't trust public health officials statements about coronavirus outbreak.— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) February 20, 2020
Because? The regime lied & covered up shooting down passenger airplane for 3 days.
3/ Compounding the anger is Iranian carrier Mahan Airlines still operating flights to & from China with little oversight from public health officials. Long after most countries have suspended flights from China.— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) February 20, 2020
4/ Tomorrow is elections. In Qom health officials have warned people to stay away from public spaces.— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) February 20, 2020
What precautions are officials taking to not spread coronavirus in long lines & finger stamps?
Conveniently for the government, the outbreak has preceded Iran's legislative elections, set for tomorrow.
A day before the biggest election in the history of Iran the streets in Qom are looking empty. What will this mean for the voting turnout tomorrow?? Do not let fear make your decision. #COVID19 #WAKEUPTHEWORLD pic.twitter.com/LxAIdrhRbE— Hector Torres (@hectorology) February 20, 2020
In a hilarious example of Iranian style "democracy", the government has refused to reschedule tomorrow's election and is instead advising citizens to stay home and avoid voting.
5/ Many Iranians were already planning to sit out the elections. Hopelessness for change & anger over disqualification of reformist candidates, lying about airplane shooting & Nov. killing of hundreds of protestors. Fear from coronavirus could be another excuse to boycott vote.— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) February 20, 2020
6/ Brother of dead coronavirus patient in Qom is a member of Iran's central medical committee. He disputes government account, says his brother was 60, not elderly & had no existing health issues, caught the virus in the streets of Qom. He accuses officials of "cover up."— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) February 20, 2020
Given that this reporter is writing for a western media organization like the NYT, how do we know her report isn't colored by an anti-Iranian bias? Well, as one twitter user pointed out in replies to a tweet by Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding...
I wouldn't say she's reputable as she reports with a pro-Iran tone a lot. But the fact this negative Iran news is coming from her makes it probably true— Andrew Stanton (@andyjstanton) February 20, 2020
...that Farnaz Fassihi often reports with a strongly pro-regime tone (as most of the liberal media in the US do these days).
Meanwhile, next door in Iraq, officials have banned Iranian citizens from traveling through Iraq's border crossings and airports in an attempt to try and stop the virus from spreading. Kuwait airways has also cancelled flights to Iran.
While the extent of the outbreak isn't yet known, one twitter user who has been closely following the outbreak around the world said he estimates that there are already 2,000 cases of the virus in Iran, but it isn't clear what he's basing that on.
All we know is we expect Tehran to face more pressure - both internal and external - in the coming days.