For several months, the Iranian regime has withheld many facts about the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran. This continues even as media report that the pandemic is spreading at a rate far higher than in previous epidemics, making Iran one of the worst-hit countries by the spread of the disease, with one of the highest per-capita death rates.
Some regions have been hit far worse than others; in the three months since the first cases were reported, the rates of coronavirus infections have increased massively in northern Ahwaz (known in Farsi as Khuzestan province) at alarming rates, far higher than those seen in other areas of Iran.
Today, the Ahwaz region comprises parts of several Iranian provinces, including the entirety of the province known in Farsi as Khuzestan. The remainder of the predominantly Arab region is now divided between a number of provinces in the south and southwest Iran, including Bushehr and Hormozgan.
On Sunday, May 10, Reuters published a report entitled ‘Coronavirus: Iran locks down southwest county after spike in cases’, with the news agency’s coverage reliant on reports from the Tasnim news agency, an affiliate of the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is classified as a terrorist organisation.
The agency quoted the governor of the region as saying that there had been a huge surge in the number of cases across the area, including the provincial capital of Ahwaz region.
Due to the sources relied upon by Reuters, the information in the report is questionable at best; for one example, the report cites a claim by the regime’s provincial governor, Gholamreza Shariati, that the reason behind the disease spreading in the region is that the Ahwazi people are not committed to social distancing.
Anyone knowledgeable about Iran’s domestic affairs and policies is fully aware that this is an effort to deflect attention from the regime’s own woeful failure to combat the increase in the number of cases; Ahwazis are as worried as everyone else about the virus and doing their utmost to avoid infection, but have received no help to counter it, with the infection rate trebling and hospital admissions due to the disease rising by 60 per cent in recent weeks.
In its efforts to attribute the rising infection rates to supposed negligence by Ahwazis, the regime ignores the primary reasons for the spread of the disease in the region; poverty, widespread unemployment, and the government’s very deliberate neglect of the regional healthcare infrastructure, which is inadequate at best and largely non-existent.
With coronavirus spreading rapidly in the region’s neglected and overcrowded cities, Dr Farhad Abol Nejadian, the head of Jundishapur University of Medicine and Health Sciences of Ahwaz , has called for moving many of the region’s towns and cities from the government’s ‘white’ list of less infected areas to the critical list to ensure better treatment.
Warning about the dangers from the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in northern Ahwaz (Khuzestan province) in a TV interview broadcast on Thursday May 7, Nejadian called on senior regime officials in the province to implement further restrictions on social gatherings there. He protested against the regime including 10 of the main cities in the region on its ‘white’ list which means that congregational prayers can be held in them.
“More than 10 cities in the province have been declared as white cities,” he said in the interview. “We have provided documents on this and emphasised that the number of patients at hospitals is not consistent with the declared categorisation.”
In reference to the regime’s announcement that it would be resuming economic activities following a brief lockdown, he urged the senior administrative officials in the province to reject this move and introduce regulations that would allow healthcare officials to impose harsher quarantine measures there if necessary. This is still necessary.
It should also be noted that the Iranian regime announced on May 4 that 132 mosques across the country would be reopened in the ‘white’ cities, with many regional officials protesting about a subsequent resurgence in COVID-19 cases in their provinces.
Another senior medical official in Ahwaz, the president of the Razi Hospital, Farhang Koreband, also warned on Thursday May 7 that the Coronavirus is continuing to spread rapidly in Ahwaz, adding ominously that half of those examined at local hospitals are in a critical condition due to the virus, an exceptionally high percentage; he added that half of those visiting hospitals should actually be admitted to them.
Meanwhile, Iranian media outlets, including the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), reported that even the head of Ahwaz municipality, Moussa Shaeiri, had been infected with COVID-19 as the virus continues to spread across the area.
The media coverage of this crisis raises a number of questions. First, why does Reuters cite regime-affiliated media outlets which are extremely well-known for being more interested in promoting regime propaganda and covering for the regime’s wrongdoing than in reporting facts.
Secondly: If the regime’s claims about Ahwazis being more prone to the virus due to avoiding social distancing are true, how is it that northern Ahwaz, along with adjacent Ahwazi-majority provinces such as Bushehr and Hormozgan managed to remain untouched by the virus outbreak in recent months while the ethnically Persian regions saw large numbers of cases and deaths, then suddenly became the epicentre of the virus?
Again, the regime’s failure to provide any support or subsidies to already economically deprived and marginalised areas has ensured that people are forced to abandon quarantine simply to survive; once more the regime prioritises the economy and markets far above the lives of its most disadvantaged citizens.
Although health officials warned on multiple occasions against easing the restrictions, pointing out that this would invariably lead to higher rates of COVID-19 infections, the regime ignored their expert opinions as always.
Even children are not immune from the regime’s indifference, with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announcing via the presidential website on Monday that schools would reopen next week, once again ignoring against the advice of medical experts.
Another reason for the spiralling crisis and the continuing spread of the pandemic is the regime’s insistence on resuming public prayer gatherings which recommenced following a brief suspension, last Friday, May 8, with the authorities holding these gatherings across Ahwaz and 180 major cities across Iran.
Many in Ahwaz have noted, however, that while most provinces only saw the congregational prayers resumed in major cities, including the capital Tehran, in Ahwaz they were resumed on a region-wide basis in all the provincial towns and cities.
Many have suggested that the failure of Hassan Rouhani’s government to manage the crisis and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic means that its only option now is to impose a news blackout in order to cover up the scale of the disaster.
It’s very clear that after the IRGC, a body which obviously has no medical expertise, took control of the committee tasked with combating the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran, the Coronavirus spread across the country like wildfire, most especially in northern Ahwaz, including its main cities such as Abadan, Muhammarah, and the capital city Ahwaz, raising suspicions and fears amongst Ahwazi citizens.
One of the reasons behind the public’s suspicions of the regime’s motives is the way that the virus was allowed to spread in the infamous Sepidar and Shaiban prisons where thousands of political prisoners are detained, and which are notorious for their massive overcrowding and appalling conditions; whilst amnesties were announced for other, ethnically Persian detainees in prisons elsewhere in the country, no Ahwazi prisoners were released.
This has already led to a number of deaths among prisoners in both jails, with the regime’s refusal to admit to their cause of death, let alone to the real scale of the pandemic making it impossible to know the real death toll.
Whilst the regime has acknowledged 114,533 cases of which over 6,854 have died, it’s feared that the real death toll is far higher.
A spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Health, Kianush Jahanpur, announced in a recent statement on state television that the number of deaths from the virus has reached 51 cases per day. If we calculate based on this figure and extrapolate even the minimum possible death toll, the result will be radically different to that acknowledged by the government.
Radio Farda has also noted massive discrepancies in the Iranian health ministry’s official figures and those provided by local media and hospitals. While the National Organisation for Civil Registration in Iran was supposed to publish details on nationwide infections and deaths, a spokesman for the organisation said at the start of this week that the figures were being withheld at the request of the task force in charge of tracking the Coronavirus in Iran, the body now under the IRGC’s supervision.
While the Iranian authorities are making a great effort to deny the facts and cover up the causes of the virus outbreak in the Ahwaz region, the pandemic is continuing to spread. Rather than promoting public awareness in Ahwaz to help encourage greater safety, the Iranian authorities have focused on protecting their own position, spending time and effort on covering up the spread of the disease rather than on helping the people to limit its transmission through quarantine, reducing movement and searching for the epicenter of the disease.
Along with the regime’s failure in dealing seriously with the outbreak in the regime, Ahwazis are bearing the brunt of continuing deprivation and poverty; despite living in a province that contains over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran, Ahwazis are denied employment in related industries and are among the poorest ethnic minorities in Iran and globally, living from hand to mouth by menial labour and street vending, selling water or working in unskilled jobs in the municipality. The idea of social distancing and quarantine at home is a dream for those who have no option but to work simply to stay alive, more particularly while the regime has provided no financial aid to ease the pressure.
Indeed, rather than helping the people, the regime has arrested municipality workers in Kot Abdullah county who staged protests at the area municipality building over not receiving their wages for months; when the desperate employees (around 40 workers) staged peaceful protests, starting from Saturday last week in an effort to obtain their backdated salaries, they received no response from the municipality except for being physically assaulted by regime intelligence agents who arrested over 5 of the protesters.
First Iran shuts down this minority region, under the flimsy pretext of coronavirus spiking (as opposed to many other regions it is reopening despite ongoing cases), and then promptly begins a new wave of political arrests. This can’t be allowed to pass unnoticed or unchallenged https://t.co/bwHCg0vFkd
— Aaron Eitan Meyer (@aaronemeyer) May 11, 2020
In response to this sadly predictable action, attorney and researcher Aaron Eitan Meyer commented on Twitter that “First Iran shuts down this minority region, under the flimsy pretext of coronavirus spiking (as opposed to many other regions it is reopening despite ongoing cases), and then promptly begins a new wave of political arrests. This can’t be allowed to pass unnoticed or unchallenged”. When asked to elaborate, Meyer pointed to the lack of independent media coverage and sarcastically compared IRNA reports to “atrociously written propaganda that could be exposed as such in minutes, if anyone bothered to pay attention to its absurdity.” He further criticised the regime’s closures of roadways into Ahwazi cities and regions as “further proof that the regime would happily allow Ahwazis to perish, so long as they don’t infect non-minority Iranians, or God-forbid, interrupt gas and oil production.”
Turning back to the context of the oil and gas industry in Ahwaz, another problem exacerbating the Coronavirus death toll is the extremely high pollution levels in the region from the numerous oil and gas wells and related petrochemical facilities, none of which are fitted with emissions-reduction filtres or equipment; this leads to higher than usual rates of cancer, lung disease and breathing-related difficulties among the local population, which makes any virus of this nature particularly lethal.
Despite the regime’s claims, the pandemic has already had a terrible effect in the region; in March this year, the head of the Jundishapur University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Ahwaz revealed that, on average, a citizen in Ahwaz is infected with COVID-19 every two hours, with one death as a result of the virus every 15 hours; he added that at the rate at the time it was expected that 70 per cent of the population of Ahwaz would be infected with the Coronavirus and at least 3.5 per cent of those infected would die as a result. While the number of infected cases has been increasing, however, the number of hospital beds in the entire region available to treat them still does not exceed 840, with the regime maintaining its customary indifference to Ahwazis’ health and well-being, refusing to provide any additional medical facilities; most of the region’s hospitals are bare, sparse buildings with hardly any beds or basic medical equipment, essentially being hospitals in name only, with medical staff being grossly underpaid and overworked.
Even now, the regime has taken no action to help the long-suffering people, as evidenced by its now infamous decision to refuse to allow Doctors Without Borders to enter the country to help the worst affected areas such as Ahwaz.
All these problems demonstrate why it is imperative that Western journalists and media should be extremely wary of relying on regime statements or figures in their reports on events in Ahwaz or elsewhere in Iran, particularly if they care about accuracy or credibility. If media wish to provide accurate and trustworthy news, which is surely a fundamental requirement, there is no shortage of Ahwazi experts and credible, non-regime-affiliated Iranian sources willing to help them do so and to provide reliable facts and figures. The oppressed, ignored and marginalised people of Ahwaz and other long-suffering minorities and dissidents in Iran deserve better than being the subject of false reports sourced from the Iranian regime’s domestic or overseas propagandists.
Ahwazis, who have lived with Iran’s malign machinations for a long time, are fully aware of the reasons behind the unusual spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ahwaz in particular; these spring primarily from a combination of anti-Arab racism, associated negligence, hostility to the indigenous people who are viewed as a problem for the regime, and often deliberate mismanagement springing from these destructive motives.
Another cause exacerbating the existing problems is the differences between the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his favourites and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani over how to confront the spread of coronavirus. While Khamenei initially assigned the president and his government to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, he subsequently asked the team of Mohammad Bagheri, the IRGC’s military commander and Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, to manage the crisis, although he instructed officials to commit to the instructions of the Rouhani government.
Other factors worsening the situation for the region are the regime’s construction of massive dams near the source of the region’s once mighty rivers that made it a regional breadbasket, with much of their waters now diverted to other, ethnically Persian areas of Iran; this has led in turn to massive desertification downriver, with fishermen and farmers whose ancestors made their living there for centuries being driven out of business. Other farmers have been forced to move to shantytowns on the margins of the cities there due to the regime’s confiscation of their lands which are either razed to create massive state-run sugarcane plantations run at a ruinous loss, or ‘given’ to incoming Persian settlers who receive subsidies not available to Ahwazis to move to the area. The overcrowding in these shantytowns is another factor in the spread of the virus.
As all these facts and the regime’s deliberate opacity and long practice in manipulativeness and hiding the truth show, the so-called ‘Islamic Republic’ regime’s sole interest is its own preservation and in silencing dissent. This has contributed to intensifying the current COVID-19 crisis and to the failure to find a solution, leading to the deaths of many more innocent people.
It is this chilling indifference to the Ahwazi people that led to the Iranian administration allowing Dr Farhad Abol Nejadian, the aforementioned head of Ahwaz University for Medical Sciences, to openly suggest the possibility that 70,000 citizens in Ahwaz – men, women and children – may die from the virus in the coming period. For Iran’s regime, the human lives represented in this staggering and terrible figure are simply expendable “collateral damage”, once again showing the Iranian regime’s true and terrible inhumanity.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
Mostafa Hetteh is a writer and journalist:https://twitter.com/mostafahetteh