The Iranian regime celebrated the 41st anniversary of its founding this week. The occasion is typically marked by parades and demonstrations at which public participation is heavily encouraged, actively facilitated, and even made mandatory for government employees. This year’s festivities were not exception, but they took a different form as a result of widespread public awareness of the ill-managed coronavirus pandemic.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that whereas parade participants would normally march in close proximity to one another, this year’s ceremonies involved far more vehicular traffic in order to maintain some measure of social distancing. But video shows that many of the vehicles in question were motorcycles and that many of the riders were unmasked, often lingering more closely to one another than the internationally recommended distance of two meters, or six feet.
These shortcomings in the parades’ health protocol underscore the overall lack of consistency in the government’s efforts to mitigate community spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. At the same time, the parades themselves highlight the regime’s unwillingness to sacrifice what is typically a powerful source of state propaganda, even if doing so might have saved lives.
This in turn reminds many close observers of the origins of the Iranian outbreak, which has been by far the worst in the Middle East and arguably the worst in the entire world. According to official statistics from the Iranian Health Ministry, the virus has killed approximately 59,000 people in the nation of 83 million. But the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, has collected information from its domestic intelligence network which suggests that this is a drastic undercount and the product of deliberate disinformation.
According to the latest report from the PMOI’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the actual death toll now exceeds 214,000 people, with millions of active cases overwhelming hospitals throughout the country. Previous reports have offered a number of explanations for how the situation became this serious, most of which involve severe government mismanagement and early efforts to ignore the pandemic and misinform the public about it.
Arguably one of the worst contributors to the long-term death toll was the regime’s refusal to acknowledge that the coronavirus had reached Iran until well after the celebration of the regime’s anniversary in 2020. Widespread participation in that celebration was especially important to Iranian officials because the anniversary itself was a major milestone and also because it took place in the aftermath of three major anti-government uprisings spanning from December 2017 to January 2020.
As the pandemic worsened in the spring of that year, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani boasted that the regime had been transparent about the outbreak and “did not delay one day” in revealing the first cases even though they emerged shortly before February’s parliamentary elections. However, the PMOI later showed this to be a lie when it released documents from Iran’s National Emergency Organization which showed that the first suspected cases of coronavirus infection in Iran had actually been recorded before the end of 2019.
This means that authorities had upwards of a month to warn the population about the risk before holding public celebrations of the regime’s 40th anniversary. But instead, it disregarded early cases altogether and publicly announced the “first” coronavirus-related death in mid-February.
There is some question as to whether that announcement would have even taken place if not for one or both of two factors. In the first place, local sources in certain heavily affected regions had already begun to speak out about a mounting death toll. And in the second place, public awareness of the risk promised to give authorities a convenient excuse for the low turnout that was expected at the aforementioned parliamentary elections.
Regardless of what prompted Tehran to acknowledge the outbreak when it did, a large gap had already been established between the actual impact of the virus and the official narrative being promoted by the Health Ministry. This gap has never closed, though it has narrowed somewhat from a peak at which mortality estimates being published by the NCRI were roughly seven times higher than those being reported by regime authorities.
In fact, the NCRI’s latest report indicates that those authorities seem to be renewing their efforts to tighten control over public information regarding the pandemic. President Hassan Rouhani stated on Thursday that all relevant disclosures should be channeled through one source, namely the official spokesperson for the National Coronavirus Combat Taskforce. While such attempts at censorship are not new, it is possible they are growing more intense in response to a combination of alarming new statistics and outsized expectations regarding the government’s response.
On Tuesday, the regime launched a vaccination drive using shots obtained from Russia. It also announced that it would be receiving several million doses from AstraZeneca, even though the company’s Anglo-Swedish origin makes those shots a technical violation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ban on American and British-made vaccines. Despite all of this, the Health Ministry only expects to vaccinate up to 1.3 million people, mostly in ICUs, by March 20.
No doubt this will do very little to mitigate the situation predicted by Mashhad University of Medical Sciences: that the fourth coronavirus wave will be even worse than the first three. Saveh University seemingly corroborated that prediction when it noted that the number of coronavirus cases recorded in the first week of February was greater than the number recorded over the entire month of January.