Iran’s government vowed Monday to be transparent after being accused of covering up the deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside China, dismissing a lawmaker’s claim the toll could be as high as 50.
The authorities in Iran have come under mounting public pressure since it took days for them to admit to “accidentally” shooting down a Ukrainian airliner last month, killing 176 people.
The government announced Iran’s coronavirus death toll had jumped by four to 12 — by far the highest outside China — as its neighbours closed their borders and imposed strict quarantine measures.
But Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a lawmaker from the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, alleged the government was “lying”.
“As of last night, about 50 people have died” from the coronavirus in Qom alone, ILNA news agency, which is close to reformists, quoted him as saying after a closed session of parliament on the crisis.
The government rejected the claim.
“I ask our brother who declared this figure of 50 deaths to provide us with a list of their names,” Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said.
“If the number of deaths in Qom reaches half or a quarter of this figure, I will resign.”
– Suspicion on streets –
But people on Tehran’s streets were also suspicious.
“State TV gives us statistics, but when we go to hospitals we see something different. The number of people who died is much more,” said Elahe Zarabi, 56, a housewife carrying bags of bleach.
Shoaib, a 24-year-old pharmacy employee, said the shop was running out of stocks as it had gone from selling 500 face masks a day to 10,000.
“The mullahs are saying Muslims are immune because of their faith,” he said. “How will they quarantine a huge city like Tehran when they cannot even quarantine a hospital?”
Iran has been scrambling to contain the COVID-19 outbreak since Wednesday when it announced the first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims, attracting scholars from Iran and beyond.
Authorities have ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centres across the country as a “preventive measure”.
But it has not all been doom and gloom.
A video has gone viral of young men greeting each other by tapping their feet together to avoid infection, instead of shaking hands or the increasingly common fist-bump.
– Transparency pledge –
The government also vowed to be open about the disease’s spread.
“We will announce any figures (we have) on the number of deaths throughout the country. We pledge to be transparent about the reporting of figures,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said.
Assadollah Abbassi, a spokesman for Iran’s parliament, announced the latest four deaths among 61 infections after Monday’s gathering of lawmakers.
Citing Health Minister Said Namaki, he said “the cause of coronavirus infections in Iran are people who have entered the country illegally from Pakistan, Afghanistan and China”.
After reporting two deaths in Qom, Iran has yet to give a breakdown of where the other patients died.
The province worst hit by infections is Qom, with 34 cases, according to official figures.
The others are in Tehran with 13 infections, Gilan with six, Markazi with four, Isfahan with two and one each for Hamedan and Mazandaran.
The health minister said one person who died in Qom was a businessman who had made several trips to China.
Namaki said direct flights between Iran and China had been suspended, but the Qom businessman had travelled there “on a connecting flight”.
Iran’s Mahan Air said it had stopped flights to China this month, apart from eight occasions that included the delivery of virus aid to China and the return of people under the health ministry’s supervision.
– Border closures –
Since it emerged in December, the new coronavirus has killed nearly 2,600 people in China.
Iran now accounts for nearly half of the 30 deaths so far reported elsewhere in the world.
Many of Iran’s neighbours have reported cases of coronavirus in people who had travelled to the Islamic republic.
Afghanistan on Monday reported its first case in a person who had been to Qom.
Baghdad also reported its first case on Monday — an elderly Iranian citizen living in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf.
Iraq has shut its border with the Islamic republic and imposed a travel ban.
Similar preventive measures have been imposed by Afghanistan, Armenia, Pakistan and Turkey.
Kuwait and Bahrain also confirmed their first novel coronavirus cases, all of whom had come from Iran.