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Iran Coronavirus Numbers Still Muddled As Official Death Toll Leaps To 354

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohmmad Javad Zarif wears a protective mask and gloves as means of protection against the cornonavirus COVID-19, during a cabinet meeting in the capital Tehran, March 11, 2020

The latest coronavirus figures announced by Iran's Health Ministry on March 11 indicate a 3.9 percent fatality rate, still higher than the world average of 3.6 which includes Iran. The numbers appear somehow more realistic now but the real situation is still far from transparent.

According to the Health Ministry Spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, with 958 more confirmed cases the total number of coronavirus cases has now risen to 9,000 with 63 more deaths bringing the official total death toll to 354.

Since the announcement of an outbreak on February 19 the statistics offered by the Health Ministry has been puzzling. At first, the ratio of deaths to the number of confirmed contamination cases appeared very high in comparison with other countries, particularly China. The fatality rate stood at around 3.4 percent in China in late February whereas the rate for Iran was above 10 percent.

The ratio has gradually become more realistic but the overall death toll and infections still appear very unrealistic for several reasons including higher numers some officials have brought to light and reports from medical university hospitals across the country, showing many more deaths. The data collected by Radio Farda from these announcements put the death toll at more than 900 as of March 10.

An advisory letter sent to hospitals in Tehran in the last few days which cites a directive by the Coronavirus Combat Taskforce confirms that one of the reasons the official coronavirus death toll has not reflected the reality on the ground is excluding cases that have not been confirmed by testing.

In a tweet on March 10 Hesameddin Ashena, an advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, published an image of the letter and said it was "a positive step" for correcting the methodology in arriving at official figures.

The letter marked urgent quotes an item from the minutes of the Coronavirus Combat Taskforce's meeting on March 7 which says in all cases of death "diagnosed as coronavirus by health workers on the basis of clinical symptoms and lung CT scan results" the cause of death should be registered as a "definite coronavirus" case. In simpler words, hospitals are no longer required to confirm and register every death by coronavirus testing if the symptoms and CT scans confirm coronavirus infection.

It is not possible to confirm that this step has actually been taken in the hospitals of Tehran Province where according to the latest announcement 256 coronavirus patients were admitted only in the past 24 hours. The death toll in Tehran has never been announced.

A source closely involved with the Coroanavirus Taskforce told Radio Farda last week that not even all the cases reported as coronavirus deaths by hospitals are registered as such because death certificates are issued by coroners appointed by the Judiciary and the Health Ministry can only announce the tally from death certificates they issue, not its own data.

According to this expert and other informed sources, coroners have only had time to carry out the lengthy procedures on only some of the bodies that have now piled up in morgues.

Many, including lawmakers, have declared that based on their information on the ground the death toll is much higher and criticized the authorities for hiding the truth. The public, too, have posted photos and videos of mass graves in some cities on social media and reported a grave situation in overcrowded hospitals as proof that the discrepancy between the official figures and reality on the ground is intentional.

Fingers are always pointed at the hardliner establishment that have constantly put up an opposition to locking down infected cities, particularly the religious city of Qom.

Many suspect that the figures announced by Iranian officials are considerably lower than the real figures because authorities are hiding the scope of the crisis. The large number of Iranians who had traveled to other countries and tested positive for coronavirus also indicates a much higher rate of infections than officially announced.

In a research published on February 24 Canadian researchers estimated that based on coronavirus cases traveling from Iran to other countries it was statistically possible that 18,000 Iranians had been infected with COVID-19.

“Given the low volumes of air travel to countries with identified cases of COVID-19 with origin in Iran (such as Canada), it is likely that Iran is currently experiencing a COVID-19 epidemic of significant size for such exportations to be occurring”, the research paper said.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.