Coronavirus: Why Covid-19 is ripping through Iran as critics call for Tehran to do more

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent John Irvine

The coronavirus has infected a disproportionate number of Iran’s elite; senior clerics, government officials and the higher echelons of the Republican Guard.

One reason is that Iran is an Islamic Republic, a country where church and state are intertwined. It looks as though senior clergymen have infected the government.

They interact frequently and greet one another with kisses.

At the heart of the epidemic inside Iran lies the holy city of Qom. Such is its religious importance, the Iranian government has refused to shut it down.

And it’s been an even better epicentre of infection spread than those cruise ships upon which there have been at least some restrictions.

Not so in Qom, where, not only have Shia pilgrims been allowed to congregate in close proximity, they’ve been allowed to leave and potentially bring the virus home with them.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know

People in Iran are adapting to a life where the death toll rises daily. Credit: AP

Many cases elsewhere in the Middle East – in Lebanon and Iraq, for example – have direct links to visits to Qom.

Today the Iranian authorities said the total number of people infected had risen to more than 10,000, while the number of fatalities stands at 429.

Satellite images from a cemetery in Qom suggest the death toll is almost certainly higher.

They show two 50-yard trenches that were dug on February 24, when the government put the death toll nationwide at just 12.

Satellite images show what is believed to be mass graves being prepared in Qom, Iran. Credit: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies
A closer image shows what experts believe are mass graves being dug in Qom, Iran. Credit: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies

At the time a local official claimed the government was misleading the people and that there had been 50 deaths in Qom alone.

When the deputy health minister held a news conference to repudiate the claims, embarrassingly he appeared feverish and would confirm the next day that he had tested positive for coronavirus.

Iran didn’t acknowledge the presence of coronavirus in the country until February 19. The late admission has reminded people of the government’s initial denials that it was an Iranian missile that brought down a Ukrainian airliner in January.

A woman has her temperature checked and hands sanitised as she enters and Iranian shopping centre. Credit: AP

The Iranian government blames US sanctions for the crisis. Increasingly the Iranians have had to look elsewhere for business and it’s interesting that the Chinese are involved in many infrastructure projects in Qom.

Because China is now their principle trading partner, the Iranians have failed to monitor and limit Chinese visitors.

When it comes to coronavirus deaths, Iran has the highest mortality rate in the world. On a daily basis it fluctuates between eight and eighteen per cent.

Some doctors and nurses have gone public with information about bodies piling up in hospital morgues. The authorities have responded by arresting people who have posted photos and videos online.

A firefighter disinfects a shrine north of Tehran in a bid to stop the spread of the virus. Credit: AP

The Iranian government was slow off the mark on coronavirus because February 11 saw the anniversary of the Islamic revolution and February 21 saw parliamentary elections take place.

Imposing restrictions on either of those public events would have been damaging to a government already under pressure.

But struggling under US sanctions, Iran’s woes have just got worse with its neighbours in Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan closing their borders because of coronavirus. No exports to them for the time being.

March 20 will see Iranians mark Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Traditionally a time for shopping and getting together it’ll be anything but this time round.

A happy, healthy and prosperous new year is very much in doubt.