Coronavirus Death Toll Rises in Iran Amid US Sanctions and Government Negligence

The official coronavirus death toll in Iran, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, has risen to at least 54 — the highest number of fatalities outside of China, where the outbreak began. Experts say the real number of people who died from the disease may be as high as 200. This comes after Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, posted a video on social media last week acknowledging he contracted coronavirus. Just one day before, he seemed ill at a press conference, where he downplayed the spread of coronavirus in the city of Qom and said mass quarantines were unnecessary. Iranian authorities announced new efforts to combat the coronavirus on Sunday, calling on people not to use public transportation, and closing schools, universities and cultural centers. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak an international health emergency. We speak with Dr. Kamiar Alaei, Iranian global health policy expert and co-founder and co-president of the Institute for International Health and Education. He is a visiting professor at the University of Oxford.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with the coronavirus — that’s right — and specifically looking at Iran, the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the Middle East. The official death toll has risen to at least 54, the highest outside China, where the outbreak began. And experts say the real number of people in Iran who have died from the disease may be as high as 200. At least seven Iranian officials have tested positive. Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, posted a video on social media last week saying he had contracted coronavirus. Just a day before, he appeared ill at a news conference while saying mass quarantines were unnecessary.

IRAJ HARIRCHI: [translated] I would like to inform you that I have been infected with coronavirus. I had a fever yesterday. My first test was positive last night. And I have isolated myself. They informed me a few minutes ago that my final test definitely is positive. I’m starting my treatment, and my general condition is not bad. I had a fever, which, God willing, will decrease.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Sunday, Iranian authorities announced new efforts to combat the coronavirus, calling on people not to use public transportation, and closing schools, universities, cultural centers. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak an international health emergency.

For more, we’re going to Albany, New York, to speak to Dr. Kamiar Alaei, an Iranian global health policy expert, co-founder and co-president of the Institute for International Health and Education, visiting professor at the University of Oxford.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Doctor. Can you start off by talking about why you think Iran has been so hard hit at this point?

DR. KAMIAR ALAEI: As you know, there are political reason that Iran undermined the reality. One of them was that Iran is a great ally with China. While there are a lot of experts that they recommended to close those direct flights from China to Iran, but Iran, not only they didn’t close those direct flights, but also in some occasions they increased the number of flights, because a lot of Chinese, they couldn’t make it to their final destinations, so they used Iran as a kind of transferring point.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to —

DR. KAMIAR ALAEI: At the same time, there were two —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

DR. KAMIAR ALAEI: Go ahead. And at the same time, there were two other important occasions. One of them was the anniversary of the revolution. And after that, we had the parliamentary elections. So the main concern of the government was that. If they admit that there’s an outbreak of coronavirus, that may discourage Iranian population to come to participate.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking Friday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about Iran’s response to the coronavirus.

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: Their healthcare infrastructure is not robust. And to date, their willingness to share information about what’s really going on inside of the Islamic of — of Iran has not been robust. And I’m very concerned that it is — it is that Iran that is not sharing information.

AMY GOODMAN: So, here is Pompeo expressing his concern about Iran. How much did the U.S. sanctions against Iran affect the health infrastructure? Because they’re not just total U.S. sanctions against Iran; they sanction any country that does business with Iran. Has this also deteriorated the health infrastructure inside Iran?

DR. KAMIAR ALAEI: Definitely sanction has some contributing factors. Especially right now they are seeking for to have testing devices. But I think the main cause of outbreak is the mismanagement of the leadership of Iran, because Iran has a pretty good infrastructure, especially for healthcare system. But the problem was that the decision-makers, they were not Ministry of Health officials. And due to political interests, they didn’t listen to a lot of experts that they asked them. For example, the main source of coronavirus is a holy city which is called Qom. While the minister of health asked to put the city in quarantine, the militia didn’t accept that. So that shows that from one side, the officials — the experts, they cannot implement those decisions. And at the same time, the government, they wanted to undermine the significance of the coronavirus outbreak. So that was the reason a lot of the healthcare workers, they were not expecting that they may face the outbreak. And we have a lot of doctors, nurses that got infected by coronavirus.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about now what’s happening to the government. You have the vice president, the head of women’s affairs, she has been — she has tested positive for coronavirus. Seven officials now, as we saw one of the people who’s quarantined himself. They were in contact with the president. What does this mean at this point?

DR. KAMIAR ALAEI: So, this is very surprising, because if you compare this to China, you don’t see in China there are a lot of senior officials that got infected. I think one of the reasons was that they undermined the reality of the coronavirus. And second one is that: How do you expect, as senior leaders, they get direct exposure to coronavirus, unless they are careless about the prevention methods? And if you look at the reports, why the official reports today say there’s 1,500 detected cases, out of them 54 cases, they died. But the unofficial reports say there’s more than 400 death cases. And if you use 2% mortality rate, the prediction is over 20,000 infected cases there are in Iran. And there are more than 18 countries that they detected some of the new infected cases among Iranians.

AMY GOODMAN: Doctor, we have this new news in from Time magazine: “Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi died at a Tehran hospital of the virus, state radio said. He was 71,” a member of a council that advises Iran’s supreme leader. The significance of this? And President Trump saying — over the weekend, talking about Iran, he said, “We would love to be able to help them. All they have to do is ask.” What do you think will be Iran’s response? And what do you think of what Trump said? We have 20 seconds.

DR. KAMIAR ALAEI: So, definitely it’s a good opportunity for global health diplomacy. But the way it was approached was not in the right way, because Iranians are very proud cultures. I think they would be a more indirect approach through U.N. bodies or international organizations to get involved, so, by this way, make some justification for Iranian officials to accept those international aids.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Kamiar Alaei, I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder and co-president of the Institute for International Health and Education, visiting professor at University of Oxford, an expert on HIV/AIDS, drug policy and international health and human rights, speaking to us from Albany, New York.

And that does it for our show. We are going to be doing a live five-hour broadcast Super Tuesday night with The Intercept from 7:00 Eastern time to midnight. Check it out at democracynow.org or on your local station.

Happy Birthday to Libby Rainey! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.