The spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19) in Iran has dominated coverage in Iranian media and social networks inside Iran and among Iranian dissidents outside the country. The epicenter of the disease is the holy city of Qom, the seat of most religious seminaries and religious centers in Iran and host to thousands of students from all over the world. Qom is a major entry point because of the large number of pilgrims who visit. Iranian social media widely reported that Chinese religious students were the cause of the spread of the virus in Iran.1 Meanwhile, the head of the Iran University of Medical Sciences and his colleague from Qom University of Medical Sciences have been quarantined under surveillance since they were exposed to the coronavirus during their treatment of patients.
So far, the virus has killed 16 people, according to official data, and about 95 are identified as carriers of the virus. However, independent media outlets, social media activists, and even Majlis members claim the number of victims is even higher. Some journalists wonder why the city was not quarantined, and there have been many allegations of failure to manage the crisis and preventing the spread of the virus. The reformist newspaper Aftab Yazd wrote in its headline on February 25, 2020, “The evasion of giving answers is worse than the coronavirus.” Exiled cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar stated that the Iranian regime specializes in hiding its problems.2
Admiral Ali Shamkhani, head of the Supreme National Security Council, ordered Iran’s Attorney General Jafar Montazeri to check the declarations of Ahmad Amirabadi, a parliament member from the city of Qom, who claimed that 50 people died in the city as a result of the coronavirus. Shamkhani added that those who spread false news as well as those who try to hide the truth violate Iranian national security.3
Iran’s deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi rejected the claim, saying he would tender his resignation if it turned out that only half that number had died. Harirchi’s press conference on February 24, 2020, showed him sweating profusely.4
The next day, it was announced he had the virus.
Despite the spread of the virus in Iran, Mahan Airlines continues to fly to China despite the calls from the vice president and several ministers for an end to flights to and from China. Mahan Air is associated with the Revolutionary Guards and flies Shi’ite combatants to the front in Syria. It even flies Chinese civilians to and from Turkey.
Meanwhile, with the virus spreading in the city of Qom, a center for Shiite pilgrimages from the Gulf, several Gulf States (UAE, Oman) have suspended flights to Iran because of the coronavirus. They have also banned their citizens from visiting Iran. The Dubai Airport, a key transit point for continuing flights to Iran, decided to suspend incoming flights after Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman announced that they were suspending flights to Iran.5 The Prime Minister of Armenia announced his country will close its borders with Iran for at least two weeks in order to prevent the virus’ spread in Armenia.
“Defeating the Coronavirus”
In Iran, in the shadow of increased criticism of the regime for failing to contain the coronavirus’s spread and the continued concealment of the virus’ magnitude, President Rouhani stated that Iran’s Ministry of Health will succeed to cope with the virus. He called on the citizens of Iran not to be caught in a panic and to obey the provisions of the Ministry of Health. He said he hoped for better news towards the beginning of the Iranian year, next month (March 20). The regime is trying to reduce damage to its image, among other things, through the Hashtag (#کرونا_را_شکست_میدهیم) #DefeatingtheCorona.”6. Social network users mocked Rouhani’s statements and criticized his government’s inefficiency in controlling and containing the coronavirus.
The coronavirus and the institutional failure to cope with it may spark the next wave of protest against the regime, given its policy of concealing the truth. This, after the last two protests – after the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane, shortly after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, and following new taxes on fuel prices. The Iranian regime continues to deal with the increasing distrust by Iranian civilians in all matters relating to the conduct of the regime in economic, internal, and external matters. Social networks are loaded with cartoons mocking Supreme Leader Khamenei, such as this one portraying his turban as the coronavirus.7
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