The implications of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak in Iran for Iranian authorities seem to go far beyond only a national health issue. Officials, including the President himself, now allege that the outbreak has become a propaganda tool in the hands of Iran's enemies, and first and foremost, the United States to bring the Iranian economy to a standstill.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday Iran Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said fear, anxiety, doubt and distrust among people is a virus worse than coronavirus and warned the situation in the country could turn into a "weapon in the hands of the enemies" to bring Iran's production and economic activity to a standstill.
Rouhani's comments show the Iranian government is deeply concerned about the economic fallout of coronavirus and resists measures to isolate hotspots, close schools and institutions to prevent a further spread of the virus.
"We should not allow America to add a new virus, named disruption of social activities and immense fear, on top of coronavirus. This is a conspiracy that we are witnessing and you also can see in foreign propaganda," Rouhani said.
The Iranian President, like other government officials in the past few days, also referred to the death toll of the flu in the United States and charged that U.S. officials speak about the coronavirus outbreak in Iran and never mention the 16,000 death toll of the flu in their own country.
Rouhani was most probably referring to the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who a day earlier said the U.S. was "deeply concerned" that the Islamic Republic government "may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak."
"All nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organizations," Pompeo said while also calling the recent Iranian parliamentary elections "rigged".
Supreme Leader Khamenei, too, has alleged that the coronavirus situation is being used by "the enemy" for "propaganda" against the Islamic Republic. In his first speech after Friday's parliamentary elections he said the "propaganda apparatus" of the enemies tried to dissuade people from participating in the elections by resorting to "an illness and a virus".
It is not only U.S. officials who are pointing the finger at the Iranian government and accusing it of hiding the truth about the spread of coronavirus and its fatalities. Many ordinary Iranians think the same and are very distrustful of the government.
Suspicions have been high because the government only admitted to the arrival of the deadly virus in Iran last Wednesday and within a few hours reported two deaths.
People ask how it could it possible for the authorities not to know about the outbreak if there had been so many patients in one place, Qom, that two among them died. Or why the mortality rate for Iran is so much higher than other countries.
Since December, China has reported more than 80,000 cases and 2,800 deaths, or slightly more than two percent. After China Iran has the highest rate of coronavirus fatality with 19 deaths but has reported only 139 cases and 916 cases of suspected infections, which means around 15 percent fatality rate.
According to a group of University of Toronto scientists and doctors based on coronavirus cases traveling from Iran to other countries it is statistically possible that 18,000 people are infected in the county.
“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 says.
So far Canada, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain have reported cases of coronavirus infection originating in Iran. In most cases there has been a connection with Qom, the city many Shiites from other countries visit as pilgrims.
Coronavirus has even reached the elite with several officials and lawmakers including the Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi himself testing positive only a day after along with the Cabinet Spokesman Ali Rabiee he tried to play down the situation. Rabiee is in self-isolation as of Wednesday too.
On the basis of the high coronavirus infection rate among Iran's high-ranking officials and lawmakers some people speculate that it could mirror the real number of cases across the country.
News about the coronavirus outbreak have taken over news websites, newspapers, and social media timelines but many Iranian activists and social media users have pointed out that their distrust of the government has deep roots.
They say they have not forgotten that the government has not announced the death toll of the protests in November, nor has ever disclosed how many people were arrested during and after the protests.
Others point out that the Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukrainian airliner on January 8 and everyone concealed the truth from the public for more than two days and the truth is still being withheld from the Iranian public, the victims' families and the world because Iran is refusing to hand over the black boxes of the plane to those who can actually decipher them.