Mar 5, 2020 - World

Iran clamps down on information as coronavirus spreads

Taking precaution in Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty

Iran’s coronavirus outbreak has reached the upper echelons of power, and ordinary citizens fear that the information filtering down can’t be trusted.

Why it matters: Iran has the largest coronavirus outbreak outside of China, with 3,513 confirmed cases and 107 deaths. But experts fear the real numbers are much higher, and that the government’s instinct to control information and prevent fear undermined hopes of containing it.

Flashback: When coronavirus reached Iran, apparently via a businessman traveling from China, top officials including President Hassan Rouhani insisted life would swiftly return to normal.

  • Quarantines were mocked, elections went ahead and medical workers were reportedly reprimanded for wearing masks — all in the name of preserving public calm.

Flash forward: The list of those infected now includes 23 members of parliament, a vice president and the deputy health minister.

  • A top adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei died of the virus, as did a former ambassador to the Vatican.

State of play: As pressure grew, the government belatedly took action.

  • Friday prayers were canceled across major cities for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
  • Schools are closed at least for the next two weeks, and public gatherings are discouraged. 54,000 prisoners have been released to avert contagion in Iran's prison.
  • One plan under discussion would see some 300,000 militia members dispatched to test for the virus and disinfect homes, though experts caution that could spread the virus rather than containing it.
  • But, but, but: The holy city of Qom, the epicenter of the outbreak, remains open to pilgrims. Some have chosen to travel to shrines there — even “licking the gold-plated lattice windows” — to show their faith that god will protect them, the FT reports.

Information is still being tightly controlled.

  • Medical workers contacted by the NY Times describe security agents inside hospitals warning employees not to discuss shortages of supplies or deaths from the virus.
  • One doctor based in the U.S. said colleagues in Iran had been forced to misreport causes of death for people who appeared to have coronavirus.
  • “By turning this into a national security issue, they are putting more pressure and stress on doctors and medical teams and creating an environment of chaos and fear,” a pathologist in Tehran said.

The big picture: No one knows how widely the coronavirus has spread in Iran, but based on data from hospitals in Tehran leaked to the Washington Post, epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite estimated that there were now 28,000 cases.

  • Other estimates are lower, but still greatly exceed the official total.
  • U.S. sanctions are making it harder to access emergency medical supplies, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Abbas Kebriaeezadeh write in Foreign Policy.

The bottom line: “The more the officials are scared of scaring people, the more the virus will spread and the country will be further paralyzed,” a doctor in Khuzestan province told the FT.

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