After two people died of Coronavirus in Iran on Wednesday, officials hinted at more cases of infections, fueling an atmosphere of deep apprehension among the public and expressions of distrust toward the government.
The revelation that the virus has reached Iran is taken by many as an admission that infections may had already spread in Qom, the religious capital of the country, by the time the government announced the death of two patients.
To add to the shock, two more cases of Coronavirus infection were reported in Qom on Thursday and another in Arak, close to Qom in central Iran. This is a further indication that infections seem to be spreading in the region.
Distrustful citizens take these developments as ominous signs that the government has covered up the presence of the disease in order for people to show up at elections on February 21. Officials were insisting in recent weeks there were no cases of infection in the country.
Video shows evacation of a hospital designated as a quarantine for coronavirus patients in Qom.
Persian-language social media is full of comments blaming the government for hiding the truth from the public and expressing fear the virus has spread much wider than officials admit.
Every day thousands of Iranians and pilgrims from other countries visit Qom, a holy city for Shiites, two-hours drive from the capital Tehran.
It is not clear how the virus found its way to Qom. The two who died in the city on Wednesday were residents of separate districts in the province of Qom, and neither of them had traveled to China or left the region, Health Ministry officials say.
The Head of the Contagious Diseases of the Health Ministry, Mohammad Mehdi Gouya, on Thursday said two more cases have been confirmed in Qom and five suspected of infection have been transferred to Tehran. According to Gouya there is no indication yet that the outbreak in Qom could be traced to pilgrims from Pakistan or other countries, as some rumors claimed.
According to unconfirmed reports four patients in Mashhad, Iran's second largest city and another religious center, have also been tested positive for Coronavirus. Mashhad is also a pilgrim destination and tens of thousands visit the city every day.
Video shows Revolutionary Guard's Special Unit vehicles on their way to Qom to enforce a quarantine.
In Qom special measures are being taken. One of the city's hospitals was evacuated on Wednesday evening to quarantine Coronavirus patients and authorities have announced that all schools, universities and seminaries will be closed on Thursday. Some social media users have posted videos showing the Revolutionary Guard's Special Forces have been sent to Qom.
Iran is to hold nationwide parliamentary elections on Friday. The Islamic Republic has always prided itself in election participation rates above 50 percent and interprets it as approval of its legitimacy. Unofficial polls suggest that participation in elections will be at a record low this time due to the extensive disqualification of candidates by the election watchdog, the Guardian Council.
Some social media users claim that there is a connection between the announcement of a Coronavirus outbreak in Qom and the planned elections on Friday.
"I can somehow agree with the theory that they made the Coronavirus outbreak public today [Wednesday] to justify the low election turnout but something tells me the situation has become so grave that they had to make so much noise about it just before the elections," a U.S.-based Iranian journalist wrote in a tweet.
Referring to the downing of a Ukrainian plane in January which officials blamed on "human error" he added: "I hope another 'human error' doesn't take people's lives like a monster".
According to other unconfirmed reports on social media the Ministry of Interior has asked Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to authorize the cancellation of Friday's elections due to the Coronavirus crisis but he has not responded to the request yet.
So far Coronavirus has claimed very few lives outside China. Hong Kong, Japan have each reported two deaths and South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines and France have reported 1 death each while China, the epicentre of the outbreak, has recorded 2118 deaths so far.