By Shahed Alavi
March 20, 2020
Officials of the Islamic Republic claim they learned of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran on February 19, that they informed the public on the same day, and started taking action to contain the outbreak. But a new IranWire report shows that officials were aware [Persian link] of the situation outbreak before February 19.
IranWire has exclusively received a copy of guidelines issued on February 19 by Iran’s Civil Defense Organization (CDO) which show that, even after the official announcement of the coronavirus outbreak, the government ordered a three-day delay in implementing measures needed to prevent the spread of the virus. The measures were postponed until after parliamentary elections on February 21.
In a letter to the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and the minister of interior, General Gholamreza Jalali, commander of the Civil Defense Organization, informed them of Operational Guidelines No. 2 of Iran’s civil defense system. Although this letter is not classified, it had not been published anywhere until now.
The letter contains two significant points. First it mentions communications by the head of the General Staff and the Civil Defense Organization, both dated January 31, and says that since cases of COVID-19 infection had been identified in Qom province, measures specified by CDO (“attached”) must be taken to prevent the disease from spreading to other Iranian provinces.
From this letter, details of the two communications that are mentioned are not clear. Were they only warnings to prepare for the coronavirus outbreak or did they report that cases of coronavirus had been identified as of January 31?
The second and the more significant point is provision 15 of the guidelines: “Intensified control of public gatherings and an emphasis on public health (after the elections).” So, even though the World Health Organization had already announced that coronavirus is highly contagious and that people must avoid gathering in large crowds, Iran’s Civil Defense Organization, which was issuing guidelines about how to control the spread of virus, postponed measures to ensure public health until after the elections.
In a TV interview on February 13, General Jalali had rejected reports on Iranian social media that coronavirus infections had been identified in Iran, but Iranian officials did not want to tell the public until after the elections. In the guidelines, however, the same General Jalali says the measures necessary immediately after the identification of coronavirus infections must be postponed for three days — until “after the elections,” as he puts it in parentheses.
Officials of the Islamic Republic, including President Rouhani, insist they learned about the coronavirus outbreak only on February 19.
“We learned on February 19 that coronavirus had arrived, and we informed the people,” Rouhani told reporters [Persian link] after a cabinet meeting on March 18. “We did not delay it even for a day. … We were transparent and honest in telling people about the coronavirus disease. … Do not pay attention to what they say on social media and to those who I do not know what they are after.”
But there is ample evidence that the Iranian government and its officials had known for a long time that coronavirus had come to Iran. The circumstances suggest they continued to deny the outbreak for political reasons and, probably, without a clear understanding of the consequences of this concealment.
Evidence of this intentional cover-up has been provided, among others, by senior officials of the Health Ministry. In a TV interview on March 13, Reza Malekzadeh, Deputy Health Minister, admitted that the government had been “a little late” in announcing the coronavirus outbreak [Persian video]. In the same interview he claimed that they had attributed the fatalities in late January and early February to an “influenza” outbreak.
An earlier report [Persian link] by IranWire shows that – considering the existence of coronavirus test kits at the time and its availability to health officials, and considering the World Health Organization’s statements about the specific symptoms of coronavirus infection that matched those patients who were hospitalized in Qom – it should not have been difficult to diagnose coronavirus cases and any other assessment of the reality is highly questionable.
Mohammad Molaei, a physician who reported the coronavirus outbreak after he lost his brother in Qom, is among those who say that there is ample evidence to prove the virus came to Iran long before [Persian link] it was officially announced. According to Dr. Molaei, until he requested a test for himself a day after his brother died on February 16, the hospital claimed that none of the patients who had been hospitalized since early January with symptoms similar to his brother had been tested for coronavirus.
On February 5, however, Alireza Raeesi, another Deputy Health Minister, had claimed that coronavirus tests had been conducted but no cases were found.
“Nobody has tested positive in Qom province or in the country,” Raeesi said at the time. “Social networks had citied six suspect cases but they tested negative as well. Nobody has tested positive.”
All this evidence and facts prove that claims by Iranian officials about when the coronavirus outbreak was discovered – as well as their insistence on the promptness of their subsequent actions – are highly questionable.