The death toll from coronavirus in Iran is three times higher than official figures, the BBC’s Persian Service found out.
In the internal documents, which the BBC reviewed, it is said about almost 42 thousand deaths with symptoms of Covid-19, while the Ministry of Health claims only 14 405 victims of the epidemic.
The number of people infected with the virus in the statements of the Iranian Ministry of Health is underestimated by half – 279 thousand instead of 451 thousand, which are referred to in closed reports.
Even the data from the Ministry of Health puts Iran in first place in the number of deaths and infections in the Middle East.
Over the past two weeks, the country has seen a new rise in infections.
The first death from coronavirus in Iran was recorded on January 22, according to closed reports examined by the BBC.
This is almost a month ahead of the first officially confirmed case in the country. At the time, authorities argued that there was no coronavirus in Iran, despite reports from local journalists and warnings from doctors.
Doubts about the official data of the Iranian authorities appeared at the very beginning of the outbreak.
Experts noticed inconsistencies between the figures published by the central and regional authorities.
Globally, data on infections and deaths are incomplete and depend on the level of testing.
However, the Iranian authorities have publicly announced figures that differ significantly from the government’s own data. This can mean a deliberate distortion of information.
Where did the BBC get these numbers?
The BBC received documents with statistics from an anonymous source. They contain data on hospitalizations by country, as well as the names, gender and age of those hospitalized, their symptoms, time spent in the hospital and their pre-existing health problems.
These details are consistent with other BBC reports of dead and recovered Iranians.
An anonymous source who shared information with the BBC explained his decision by a desire to shed light on the true state of affairs and stop political games around the pandemic.
The inconsistencies between government figures and those in classified documents are similar to the difference between official virus deaths and the rise in deaths for the first half of 2020 compared to the averages of past years.
What does this data show?
According to the data received by the BBC, the Iranian capital Tehran has recorded a record number of deaths: 8,120 people died from Covid-19 or with similar symptoms.
Qom, the capital of the province of the same name, ranks first in the country in terms of the ratio of population to the total number of deaths – 1,400 deaths, or 1 death per 1,000 population.
Almost 2,000 deaths from the virus in Iran are foreigners. This may be a result of migrants and refugees (mainly from neighboring Afghanistan) being the least protected population groups during the pandemic.
The overall ratio of deaths and the number of infected in classified documents is similar to official data, but different in magnitude.
The rise in deaths at the beginning of the epidemic, however, is much sharper than in official figures, and by mid-March it was 5 times higher than the data of the Iranian Ministry of Health.
Quarantine in Iran was introduced only towards the end of March, during the Novruz celebration, and after that, the data show a decline in deaths and the number of new infections.
After the release of the quarantine in late May, closed data shows a new rise in deaths and infections.
Who was the first to talk about real numbers?
Iranian doctors with access to information told the BBC that the country’s health ministry is under pressure from the special services and intelligence.
Dr. Puladi (a pseudonym) told the BBC that the Ministry of Health is trying to ignore the crisis.
“Initially, they did not have enough test kits, and when they received them, they did not use them widely enough. The position of the special services was to deny the existence of coronavirus in Iran,” Puladi said.
The Ministry of Health was forced to recognize the first case of infection by two brothers-doctors from Qom, Muhammad and Ali Molai.
They went through a personal tragedy – when their brother died, they insisted that he be tested for Covid-19. The test came back positive.
The Kamkar hospital, where their brother died, was admitting patients with symptoms similar to Covid-19, and the usual methods of treatment did not help them. However, they were not tested for the virus.
Molai posted a video with his deceased brother and a story about his illness. After that, the Ministry of Health officially recognized the case of infection.
Despite this, a report on state television criticized the doctor and even wrongly claimed that he allegedly recorded a video with his brother several months before the pandemic began.
Why hide the real numbers?
The coronavirus outbreak in Iran coincided with the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as well as the country’s parliamentary elections.
The authorities saw these events as an opportunity to demonstrate their popularity among the people, and the epidemic became a threat to these plans.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has spoken about how the coronavirus could be used to disrupt elections.
The elections were indeed held with a very low turnout. But even before the pandemic, the political situation in the Islamic Republic was extremely difficult.
In November 2019, a wave of protests that began with an increase in gasoline prices was brutally suppressed and hundreds of people died during several days of rallies.
In January 2020, in the midst of a sharp confrontation between the United States and Iran after the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by the Americans, a Boeing 737 passenger plane of Ukraine International Airlines was mistakenly shot down over Tehran. All 176 passengers and crew were killed.
The Iranian authorities initially tried to hide the true cause of the events, but three days later were forced to admit that the civilian liner was shot down by a missile fired by the Iranian armed forces.
Nuroldin Pirmoazzen, a doctor who previously worked in the Ministry of Health and also served as a deputy, told the BBC that when the coronavirus reached Iran, Iranian authorities were afraid to face the truth.
“The government was scared that the poor and unemployed would take to the streets,” Pirmoazzen said. He pointed to the fact that Médecins Sans Frontières was banned from treating patients in Isfahan province as an example of a politically motivated attitude towards the epidemic.
But even before the escalation of the military confrontation with the United States, the bloody dispersal of mass protests and the coronavirus, the situation in Iran was extremely difficult. New sanctions imposed after US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran has had a heavy impact on the country’s economy.
“Those who brought the country to this state do not pay for it. It is the poor people of this country and my poor patients who are paying with their lives,” said Dr. Puladi.
“In the conflict between the US and Iranian authorities, we are the main losers.”
Iran’s Ministry of Health said its reports to the World Health Organization on the number of deaths and infections with coronavirus are transparent and do not contain any deviations.