This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran keeps growing amid criticism of what is seen as a belated state response and concerns about the real scale of the outbreak in the country, which has left dozens of dead, including a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Health Ministry said on March 4 that the death toll had jumped to 92 from 77– the highest outside of China where the virus emerged in December 2019 — while the number of those infected reached 2,822 people, up from 2,336 cases confirmed a day earlier.
Echoing fears among the general population, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Masud Pezeshkian, a former health minister and a heart surgeon, voiced concern that the real number of infections in the country, which has become the epicenter of the outbreak in the Middle East, are far greater than current official figures.
“The numbers are not real because a number of these patients don’t have any symptoms to be tested,” Pezeshkian told the news site Ensafnews.ir.
“The Health Ministry is telling the truth about its numbers but they don’t include all of those who have been infected…. We [have not identified] many [of those infected] and we haven’t tested them, but they are ill,” he added.
Pezeshkian also blasted officials for not having quarantined the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, where the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed on February 19.
Health Ministry officials have said that they don’t believe quarantining the city with its estimated 1.2 million residents would have been effective in fighting the outbreak. They have called on citizens to avoid gatherings and stay home while closing schools, universities, cultural centers, and canceling Friday Prayers in major provincial capitals.
But religious shrines, including the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom which attracts tens of thousands of believers annually, have remained open while being sanitized.
“What would have happened if they had shut the country for 15 days like for Norouz [the Persian New Year] when the country closes for 20 days? Unfortunately, they didn’t do it and this problem spread to most provinces,” Pezeshkian said.
The former health minister called for forceful measures in fighting the outbreak of coronavirus while warning against the consequences of the outbreak for the country, which is already facing crippling U.S. economic sanctions that have contributed to a devaluation of the national currency.
“Hospitals are full and things will get worse day by day. The economy and everything else will be ruined, in my opinion, unless the issue is dealt with seriously and militarily,” he said.
Pezeshkian also suggested that several of his colleagues who have contracted the virus are suffering from serious symptoms.
“Five or six of them are really struggling,” he said.
Lawmaker Abdolreza Mesri was quoted on March 3 as saying that 23 members of parliament had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Vice President Masumeh Ebtekar and Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who appeared at a press conference, are among state officials who have contracted the virus.
Health officials have said in past days that 300,000 teams will become involved in the fight against the coronavirus.
Public places, including streets, sidewalks, and parks, as well as public buses and subway trains are being sprayed with disinfectants on a daily basis.
Iran’s judiciary has said that 54,000 prisoners will be released temporarily in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the country’s prisons. It’s not clear if jailed Iranian-Americans, including businessman Siamak Namazi, will be among those released.
Media have also reported that travel throughout the country could be restricted ahead of the Iranian New Year on March 21.
Speaking on March 4, President Hassan Rohani said the outbreak has reached almost all of the country’s 31 provinces.
He also promised that Iran will get through the crisis with the help of its doctors and nurses “with the minimum fatalities in the shortest possible time” while saying that the government was telling Iranians, many of whom have publicly expressed distrust over the government handling of the crisis, the truth about the number of those who have died and been infected in the country.
The president also blasted the United States for imposing sanctions on Iran while saying that if U.S. officials were honest about their offer to help Iranians during the outbreak of coronavirus, they would ease restrictions imposed on the country.
The U.S. maintains that medicine and other humanitarian goods are not sanctioned. But according to Human Rights Watch, U.S. trade sanctions have limited Tehran’s ability to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines.
“If you are honest, at least remove sanctions on medicine; this is a first step,” Rohani was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Mehr news agency.