Asian Insider video: Questions about transparency as Iran tackles coronavirus outbreak

WASHINGTON - The shock outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran, apparently with a high death toll, has triggered fears of its spread across the region, where it will encounter countries with different cultures and political systems, some in conflict and some post conflict, and to top it all, refugee populations.

On Feb 27, Iran's health ministry spokesman said that out of a total of 245 positive cases of infection with the Covid-19 coronavirus, 26 had died.

That means Iran has the highest reported number of deaths from the coronavirus outside China, raising questions about how the government is handling this public health crisis and whether it has been fully transparent. Iranian Vice President for Women's Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar was among the list of high-profile people reported to have tested positive for the virus.

But Dr Orkideh Behrouzan, a physician, author, and anthropologist of medicine, science and technology, who teaches at SOAS University of London, cautioned in an interview on Asian Insider that since the total number of cases in Iran is not known, the mortality rate from the cases revealed may be misleading.

"We do know there was delay in diagnosis, as in many other places, and also there was delay in action," Dr Behrouzan said.

"And we do know that despite confirmation of diagnosis certain measures were not taken and experts' calls for, for example, limiting movement in and around the city of Qom and stopping flights to and from China were ignored," he noted.

"The defining factor of this epidemic in Iran is the way it has been politicised," Dr Behrouzan added.

Information had been suppressed, with certain people who had spoken out early about the virus pressured or warned.

Medical staff are under immense pressure - a nurse is among the dead - and are doing the best they can in a complicated situation in part because of economic sanctions, she said.

Dr Sarah Parkinson, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Johns Hopkins, speaking to Asian Insider on the same episode on Friday, stressed: "This is an extraordinarily interconnected region in terms of trade, travel, schooling, health care, and it is an international transit hub for Gulf airlines."

Health systems in some countries - like Syria and Iraq - have been severely affected by conflict.

 
 

Lebanon has been seeing months of protests and is in a financial crisis and the medical system is not prepared to deal with a new crisis, she said.

Epidemics are both medical and social events, she said.

"But in settings where there is immense inequality and huge debates about refugees, what we are seeing now is scapegoating and extraordinarily unnecessary painting of refugees as threats which is not the case here. You see people taking this opportunity to push particular political narratives about refugees."

Lebanon had placed an entire locality of Syrian refugees under quarantine even though no coronavirus cases had been reported from Syria, she said.

Dr Behrouzan added : "Epidemics by definition are both medical and socio-political entities. In the case of Iran we're also looking a severe case of mismanagement not just of the epidemic but of public anxiety."

Iran had seen turmoil and tragedy recently, including a crackdown on domestic protests in November 2019, and the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner on January 8, she noted.

"In all of those instances there were cover ups and a sense that people were being lied to," she said.

"Trust (in the government) is at a low point."