By Mohammad Hashemi

Iran coronavirus crisis: Who is telling the truth?

March 10, 2020 - 15:24

In the aftermath of the current coronavirus outbreak, it can be said with certainty that today the world public opinion is less likely to think of anything else rather than the spread of this deadly virus and its dangerous dimensions and Iran is no exception.

Today the fear of the fast spreading deadly virus is rife everywhere in Iran and it would not be an overstatement to say that people are seriously obsessed with this epidemic even when they are asleep. 

Iran officially reported its first infections and two deaths from the virus in the shrine city of Qom on Feb. 19 and the disease is believed to have spread to the country from China. 

For the first two weeks, Iran’s response to the outbreak was similar to other countries. Iranian authorities were slow to take necessary measures to fight the epidemic such as closing of schools and universities and canceling of public gatherings. Not to mention numerous Iranian officials and their relatives that have tested positive for the virus and several others who have died. Despite some operational and statistical ambiguities, according to the Iranian Health Ministry, so far there have been more than 7,160 confirmed cases and 237 declared deaths while there have been 2,394 cases of recoveries. 

All this as we have not seen countries like Turkey or Russia declaring any cases of the coronavirus infections until this moment which is very surprising given the fact that both countries are major tourist hubs.

While the novel coronavirus has dominated global headlines and the brutal U.S. sanctions have deprived Iran from accessing essential medical supplies, such as testing kits, to timely identify potential cases of the virus and save lives, much of the media attention has been focused on whether the Islamic Republic has adequately managed the outbreak and provided the true numbers of the coronavirus fatalities.

Media tug of war 

The news coming from unofficial and even semi-unofficial outlets have constantly been different from the official media version, causing more concerns among the public about the extent of the spread of the coronavirus outbreak in different cities of Iran.

In fact, there seems to be a tug of war between the official and unofficial media on the extent of the coronavirus outbreak. Contrary to the Iranian officials who keep insisting that they have been dealing with the epidemic in a transparent manner, unofficial outlets have left no stone unturned to stage an extensive psychological war against the government in the midst of an evolving crisis. 

They touch on the number of coronavirus infections and death toll as a sign of secrecy and accuse the government of being incapable of handling the crisis. That would obviously spread pessimism and extreme skepticism among the public, when more than any other time, there is a need for closer cooperation between various government bodies and the public in the fight against the deadly virus.
Hadi Khaniki, a professor at Department of Social Communication at Allameh Tabataba'i University, believes “what threatens Iranian society more than the coronavirus is the risk of mistrust, mental, psychological and social turmoil, a sense of helplessness and lack of self-determination.”
Naturally, in any society, the official media should serve as true source of news for judgment, but the ongoing decline of trust in Iran’s state- owned media has given its place to unofficial news outlets to feed their audience with sensational, false or misleading reports and rumors.
For example, the London based Farsi language channel Manoto on February 26 as part of its Iran coverage quoted some advice by a highly respected Shia cleric in Iran Ayatollah Mohammed Taghi Behjat about fighting the coronavirus. The major blunder was that Ayatollah Behjat passed away in 2009. That program turned into a huge embarrassment for the channel; however Manoto didn’t apologize.

Video from inside a morgue! 

On February 28, BBC Persian reported based on medical sources that deaths in Iran are six times higher than what Iran has been saying in public. The BBC said there were 210 deaths when Iran was reporting 34 at the time. It accused Iran of underreporting and undercounting the number of nonlethal infections.

Due to the shortage of essential medical supplies like testing kits, Iranian medical staff were unable to diagnose less severe cases, share information and efficiently track cases of infection in the country in the early days of the outbreak. That is likely to do with the higher mortality rate compared to that of other countries. Nevertheless, after receiving essential medical supplies thanks to shipments of humanitarian aid from WHO, the UK, France, Germany and China, there was a rise in detection of the new cases and at the same time the number of recoveries among positive patients.  

Just a few days later, BBC Persian published unverified videos recorded inside a morgue in the shrine city of Qom, claiming to show corpses of coronavirus victims awaiting burial.

Regardless of many questions surrounding the authenticity of those video clips, one wonders what purpose such coverage serves other than adding to the public fears and anxieties over an epidemic that has already affected all parts of Iranian lives. Because anyone watching the videos would be convinced that the number of fatalities from the virus is much higher than what the government has announced. In addition, how showing corpses in a morgue meets professional, moral or legal standards in other countries?

All this come as the World Health Organization’s director has already said there is no evidence of Iranian cover-up in virus crisis. The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Sunday (March 1) told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble that the WHO has its “own mechanism” for checking facts and has not seen problems with Iran’s reported figures.

Hassan Soleimani, the chief editor of the conservative Mashregh News, says when you compare the media coverage over the coronavirus outbreak in Iran with other places, you realize that “an all-out war has been staged against Iran with certain aims to cause maximum panic among Iranian people, shut down the country and create waves of economic bankruptcy to create a social crisis.”

Lies in media tantamount to criminal acts

Contradictory and confusing reporting about Iran didn’t stop there. On February 27 it was reported on many online platforms that Elham Sheikhi, 23, a prominent athlete from Isfahan and a member of the woman’s national team in futsal, a form of soccer, had died after contracting coronavirus. A day later, a video of her was released showing she was alive and healthy. But the rumor of her death was enough for some so-called Iran experts, even after the denial of her death, to tweet about it in order to attract more followers and perhaps win another opportunity to appear on foreign media outlets to give their highly inaccurate and one-sided views about Iran.

Political and social scientist Mohammad Mehdi Mojahedi believes “engineered spoofs and lies like those we have seen in the media are tantamount to criminal acts. Because by engineering, producing, and disseminating such false and illusory information about the origin of the disease and the extent of its casualties and the magnitude of its risks, people are discouraged to consider the true story and the real threats and solutions.”

In crisis communication, it is impossible to ignore social, political, cultural and even economic contexts that have contributed to the creation of a crisis in the first place.  It is also not fair to attribute the public fears and frenzy about the crisis solely to foreign media coverage and their efforts to magnify it.

But for now, as the severity of the crisis becomes clearer for Iran and the number of Covid-19 cases is expected to increase, the excessive emphasis on the Iranian government’s mishandling of the crisis is more harmful than helpful.

"Contagious and epidemic diseases are external threats that could be contained and cured with national and personal care. However, if one could sow the seeds of these atrocious conspiracies in the depths of people's minds and make them believe in such conspiracies, they will deprive the public of their mental and psychological security, and could paralyze a nation from within,” Mojahedi noted.

MH/PA

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