Iranian officials have reacted to an outbreak of the coronavirus by announcing emergency measures amid public distrust over the government's handling of the disease and concern that the number of infections is much higher than reported.
A total of 18 cases have been confirmed in the country, including four deaths in the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, where most of those diagnosed are also located. Two elderly patients died in the city earlier this week after testing positive for the virus, officials reported.
After only having five cases, Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur announced 13 new cases on February 21 as Iranians went to the polls to choose their new parliament.
State television showed some voters wearing masks while standing in line to cast their ballots in Qom.
The new cases included seven people diagnosed in Qom, two in the northern Gilan Province, and four in the capital, Tehran, Jahanpur said on Twitter.
"Most of the cases were residents of Qom or had a history of returning from Qom in recent days and weeks," Jahanpur added.
Iranian authorities have not explained how the virus has spread in the country.
A Health Ministry official suggested on February 21 that Chinese workers who traveled to China -- where the virus emerged in December -- were the likely origin of the virus.
"It's clear that new [carriers] of coronavirus have circulated in the country and probably the source of this illness was Chinese workers [from] the city of Qom who had traveled to China," ministry official Minou Mohrez told the official government news agency IRNA.
Mohraz added that the ministry has undertaken strong measures to control the spread of the virus.
Authorities have said all schools and seminaries have been closed in Qom and that a national committee for the prevention and fight against the virus has been created.
Health officials have also called for the suspension of all religious gatherings in Qom.
Authorities said on February 21 that in order to help prevent the spread of the virus, voters will not be required to ink their fingers while voting.
Iran also announced a temporary ban on flights to and from China in early February. But Deputy Roads and Transportation Minister Sharam Adamnejad said on February 4 that Mahan Air, blacklisted by Washington for supporting the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), had been allowed a “limited number of flights" to China to take Chinese citizens back and to repatriate Iranians.
Authorities in past weeks have applied safety measures for checking passengers for symptoms of the disease at international airports in Tehran and other cities.
Despite those measures, some Iranians have questioned whether officials are doing enough to control the spread of the disease and whether they're being transparent about the extent of the outbreak in the country.
Many Iranians are still angry over Tehran’s January downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet and what they see as an attempt by the IRGC to cover up the deadly tragedy.
“Widespread public mistrust regarding the official figures is more dangerous than the coronavirus,” journalist Siavash Fallahpour said on Twitter, highlighting the mood of many.
Another journalist, Sasan Aghaei, raised some serious questions regarding the outbreak of the virus in the country.
“We don’t know when the coronavirus reached Iran. We don’t know how many people have died. We don’t know how many people are infected or quarantined. We don’t know [which segment of the] population is at risk. We don’t really know if anything is being done to control the disease," Aghaei tweeted, adding that “we only know that they lie to us.”
Before the February 21 announcement about the new cases of infection in the country, a video was making the rounds on social media showing health workers wearing protective suits while carrying a patient into a Tehran hospital.
“Does this video recorded by a friend in front of Tehran’s Farmaniyeh Hospital and these suits and equipment have a special meaning?” economist Siamak Ghassemi asked on Twitter on February 19 while posting the video.
“Is this equipment being recently used to deal with [the common] cold or is coronavirus much closer [to us] amid silence and secrecy by officials?”
Amid the concerns, reformist politician Hossein Nooraninejad said on Twitter on February 20 that his 40-year-old cousin had most likely died from the coronavirus in Qom. However, he added that the results of his cousin’s tests to determine how he died were not yet completed.
In a series of tweets that went viral, Nooraninejad suggested that hospital officials had originally hidden the truth from the family.
“They said he’s not well but he is connected to equipment. We finally learned the [truth] after a follow-up by the family,” he said, adding that relatives are devastated amid concerns that they could be infected as well.
He urged authorities to do all they can to save lives and refrain from considering “dishonest solutions.”
A day later, on February 21, Nooraninejad said his cousin’s brother was told that he’s tested positive for the virus.
On February 21, Chinese Ambassador to Iran Chang Hua tweeted a message of support for Iran, saying that in the fight against the deadly virus, China stands with the Iranians.
Earlier this week, Iranian media reported that Tehran’s iconic Azadi Tower was lit up with messages of sympathy and support for China and its fight against the coronavirus.
Iranian officials have in past months expressed solidarity with China, where more than 2,200 have died from the virus.
Tehran has reached out to China amid a U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure” that has crippled Iran’s economy.
And China is still buying Iranian oil despite the sanctions.
Those sanctions have also affected Iran’s health-care system, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.