QAEM SHAHR, IRAN - APRIL 10: Volunteers in protective suits bury the body of a COVID-19 victim on April 10, 2020 in Qaem Shahr, Iran. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to many countries across the world, claiming over 100,000 lives and infecting over 1.8 million people. There have been over 4,000 deaths and over 70,000 people infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Iran so far. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
Denials, delays, and conspiracy theories: Iran’s Covid mismanagement
The crisis reveals fundamental failures: a politicised health system, multiple power centres, and no respect for law.
Iran’s initial reaction to the coronavirus pandemic was sluggish, and its fight with the outbreak has been chaotic and inefficient. US sanctions undeniably played a role in cutting off Iran’s access to medical equipment and expertise, medicine, and tests, but the crisis has also displayed the plagues of Iran’s healthcare system beyond sanctions. From the outset, the authorities underestimated the challenge of the virus and then attributed it to malicious foreign conspiracies. Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, said, for example, the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which they have obtained through different means”.
When, after weeks of official denials, patients with respiratory symptoms overwhelmed the country’s hospitals, the government admitted the existence of a few Covid-19 fatalities on 19 February. Facing mounting pressure from the public to act effectively and swiftly, the government implemented restrictive measures – closing schools and universities, preventing people from inter-city movements, and implementing social-distancing rules.
Yet from the outset political concerns rather than scientific advice from health experts guided decision-making. One of the first examples was the government’s refusal to quarantine Qom – the holy city of Iran and the first epicentre of the outbreak – mostly for political and religious reasons. In another instance, Health Ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour cast doubt on data from China which led other countries to view this illness like a typical flu. His comments provoked a reaction on Twitter from Chang Hua, China’s ambassador to Tehran, asking Jahanpour to “respect the truths and attempts of Great Chinese People”. Sobhe-Sadeq, a weekly organ of Revolutionary Guards’ political bureau criticised Jahanpour’s tweets, calling them “irresponsible remarks and against national interests which have been frequently repeated by Western and American media in the past”. It asked the government to investigate the intention behind these remarks.