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Why Iranian Officials Hide COVID-19 Facts, Figures From The Public?

A volunteer from Basij forces wearing a protective suit and face mask sprays disinfectant as he sanitizes a bus station, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) fears, in Tehran, April 3, 2020

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Islamic Republic of Iran's approach to news dissemination about the epidemic has been one of chaotic management, secrecy and lies.

Iranian officials first denied the existence of the disease, then refused to quarantine Qom and its religious sites. This behavior was followed by the dissemination of fake news and all this led to the spread of the virus to the other parts of the country.

For all the contradictions and ambiguities, the public in Iran still believes that the government is hiding what it knows about the epidemic and its dimensions in Iran.

Some three months after the start of the outbreak, still no one In Iran knows whether it was true that the virus was first brought to Qom by Chinese Muslim seminary students and what was the role of the country's executive officials, clerics, security and military forces in the spread of the disease in its initial phase.

Did they withhold the news about the epidemic fearing that the resulting panic might affect turnout in the parliamentary elections in February? Or was it the sheer inefficiency of officials that failed to control the disease?

After several weeks, still news and information coming from the government is ambiguous and often contradictory. Every day the government releases figures about the outbreak and its death toll. But few inside and outside Iran believe these figures. Even the World Health Organization has questioned their integrity.

Sometimes, contradictions and fabricated figures are so blatant that it appears the government could not care less about whether what it says is believable. They give out national figures but withhold provincial figures for what they call "expediency."

It is not just the public that does not trust the government's figures. Official institutions such as the Parliament Research Center, medical schools and provincial hospitals often release their own statistics while mentioning that figures given away by the government are inaccurate.

The government even exercises censorship over graveyards, hospitals, and provincial health officials who try to give out accurate statistics about the death toll. Instead of trying to explain ambiguities, the government arrests and silences those who question official figures. But why does the government do this? It surely knows about the negative consequences of hiding realities that have something to do with the people's wellbeing? Doesn't it know that there are many ways to verify the truth and come up with the true numbers? We can only guess why.

The first hypothesis is that the government hid real figures for a few weeks for political reasons ahead of the elections. But why did they continue their dishonest policy?

The second hypothesis is that what we see regarding the epidemic is simply the tip of an iceberg that reveals the tensions within state structures. In fact, this could be simply a manifestation of the conflict between the official and hidden governments. A duality that costs many lives. On the one hand is the government headed by the president and on the other are an amalgam of religious and military centers of power, not to mention the vast administration of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

A third hypothesis is that the government's incapability and its chaotic management, coupled with fear of destructive economic and social upheavals after the outbreak, has led the government to conceal or at least downplay the crisis.

The fourth hypothesis is that the government has been trapped by its initial lie and because the officials find it impossible to take back their lie, they go ahead with still more lies.

Last but not least, the fifth hypothesis is that like in many other cases, the Iranian government has fallen victim to its usual paranoia. It believes, as Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and many other official have said, that "enemies" might take advantage of the situation if they reveal the truth about the epidemic and its impact on Iran.

This does not mean that only one of these hypotheses is correct. All five hypotheses or a combination of them can explain the government's behavior.

Lack of transparency is a characteristic of the Islamic Republic. It is nothing new. We have seen it on many occasions including during the protests in November 2019 and the downing of a Ukrainian airliner in January 2020. Months after these events that claimed hundreds of lives, the Iranian government has still not told the truth.

For instance, still no one knows for sure how many people were killed during the November protests, why were they shot to death and whether those who killed them have ever been questioned. In the case of the downing of the Ukrainian plane, there is still no news of a technical investigation. Iran has been holding the black box of the aircraft and refuses to give it to Ukraine. Everything is shrouded in mystery and kept secret by the government.

Lack of transparency as a culture has seriously damaged the people's trust in the government. Part of the reason for this lack of transparency is the hidden government that is responsible for many mischiefs but is not accountable for anything. On the other hand, the concept of what is “expedient” for the regime justifies almost anything as the Islamic Republic’s first and last golden rule.

The government does not get its legitimacy from the people, so it does not show any respect to them or their wellbeing. It does not understand citizenship rights. The political structure in Iran does not call for accountability and does not encourage it.

The most powerful man in the system, the Supreme Leader, makes all the key decisions but he is not accountable to anyone. In the face of this contradiction, elected institutions such as the parliament and the president have lost all of their powers and have practically "melted into the concept of the supreme guardian" to protect the individuals who occupy posts. As a result of lack of transparency, lying and secrecy have become institutionalized in the Iranian political ecosystem. In order to remain in the government, one should turn a blind eye and keep silent. No one is bothered by the ugliness of deceit.

Lack of transparency and fabricated news and data have been practically turned into a culture that erodes the ethical contract between the society and the government and precipitates the erosion of institutional legitimacy. As a result, no one trusts the government and its media outlets and everyone turns to other sources for truth and information.

The opinions expressed by the author in this article are not necessarily the views of Radio Farda
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    Saeed Peyvandi

    Professor of sociology from Paris 13 University, Saint Denis, France. He contributes occasionally to Radio Farda.