Thursday , 21 September 2023

Weekly Review of Coronavirus Disinformation in Iran: Health Official Line Up to Dispute Government Figures

Iran-wire – In the eight months since the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, many of the most bizarre pronouncements both about the virus and attempts to control it have come from Health Minister Saeed Namaki – especially when he is addressing either the Supreme Leader or the president of the Islamic Republic.

Since late September the official daily death toll has been rising day by day. On October 28, after the number of fatalities had risen above 400 for the first time, Namaki declared: “The vital support by the exalted Supreme Leader was the main factor in Iran’s success in fighting coronavirus.”

Namaki did not explain what form this “success” was supposed to have taken, at a time when Iran is being battered by a third wave of coronavirus. This is far from the first time the Health Minister has used his public platform to flatter Khamenei or Rouhani, perhaps in an attempt to bolster his own standing. In addition, Namaki has repeatedly claimed that in “other countries” patients have been left wandering outside hospitals and in parks whereas in Iran no patient has been left in the cold because of not being able to afford treatment.

These claims have consistently been proved wrong – both by the pictures and videos that regularly surface on social media, and by statements by other health and provincial officials. On October 7, for instance, Dr. Payam Tabarsi, head of infectious diseases at Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari Hospital, said “in the city of Tehran there are no longer any empty beds for coronavirus patients.”

Does Air Pollution Make Covid-19 Worse?

Since the summer there have been concerns that, with the arrival of the cold season, the number of coronavirus infections would rise at this time. Many believed that the drop in temperature would also intensify air pollution in metropolitan areas which, combined with the other factors, would eventually lead to a lockdown of big cities.

As of now, however, Iranian officials have made no specific decisions about how to cope with this scenario even though studies both in Iran and around the world have proven that air pollution leads to a rise in coronavirus deaths. Abbas Shahsavani, director of the Health Ministry’s Air Safety and Climate Change Workgroup, said on October 24: “Based on a study we conducted, we found that coronavirus deaths increase up to six percent by aerosol particles, up to seven percent by ozone and up to 15 percent by nitrogen dioxide. However, in countries such as China and Italy much higher numbers have been reported.” His statement is supported by international studies conducted in Western countries.

Nevertheless, on October 25, Ali Maher, deputy director of the Greater Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, denied that air pollution has any effect on coronavirus patients. “Our research has not shown any connection between the two,” he said. Furthermore, he added, “there is no evidence that temperature has any effect on the rate of infections.” These contradictory statements only serve to bewilder the Iranian people, at a time when coherence and cohesion is paramount.

Eight Months of Misinformation

It was on February 19 that the ministry of health officially first announced the start of the coronavirus epidemic in Iran. Since then not a day has gone by without contradictory information being presented about the number of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. In the past week, a number of senior health officials have broken rank to announce that the official numbers are widely off the mark.

But it may be a case of too little, too late. Public trust in senior health figures in Iran is low because of the extent of obfuscation in the early days of the pandemic. October 20, Saeed Namaki unexpectedly revealed that he had known coronavirus was spreading in Iran a week before it was officially announced. “Three cases suspected of influenza after February 12 were [actually] coronavirus,” he said.

On October 25, Hossein Gheshlaghi, a member of the board of Iran’s Medical Council, said: “The rate of coronavirus fatalities in the country is approximately three to four times the official statistics.” This claim appears to be borne out by field reports from local medical centers, as well as burial figures.

Figures published by Tehran City Council, meanwhile, reveal that just in Tehran an average of 150 Covid-19 patients have been dying every day since February. This means that since the coronavirus outbreak more than 16,000 people in the nation’s capital have perished because of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, Dr. Minoo Moharez, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Scientific Committee, has moved to defend the official statistics. The number of fatalities in the Iranian capital announced by Tehran City Council is based on reports that it receives from Behesht Zahra Cemetery. As such, Dr. Moharez asserted, “There are those whose coronavirus tests have been negative but CT scans have shown [symptoms]. Therefore, the city council’s numbers might be higher. The health ministry does not undercount fatalities but more than 30 percent of these people have tested negative so they are not included in the ministry’s figures.”

Neither announcement took account of the fact that some Iranians are dying at home before any form of hospital treatment or admission, let alone a coronavirus PCR test. Dr. Moharez herself also acknowledged that anywhere between 30 to 40 percent of negative test results could be “false negatives”. This is not an academic issue; misleading figures actively endangers the lives of Iranians whose behavior might well be different if they knew how serious the situation truly was.

Iran’s Latest Coronavirus Statistics

In her daily briefing for October 30, health ministry spokeswoman Dr. Sima Sadat Lari announced the official coronavirus statistics for the past 24 hours:

Dr. Lari also reported that all 31 Iranian provinces are in red, orange or yellow states of alert.

This is part of IranWire’s coronavirus chronology. Read the full chronology