While Europe has been slowly reopening after lockdowns meant to halt the spread of Covid-19, Iran is in the grips of a second deadly wave of the virus. Hospitals across the country are filling up and our Observers say, in some regions, they’ve already run out of beds. While the government is still reporting relatively low numbers of cases, our Observers say this just doesn’t reflect the situation on the ground. They report overwhelmed hospitals and towns plunging back into lockdown. Of the country’s 31 provinces, 14 have been declared coronavirus “red zones”, the most serious indicator.
Iran was one of the first countries hit by the Covid-19 pandemic after China, but authorities didn’t admit that the virus was circulating there until February 21. I worked with my contacts on the ground to document this first wave during the spring. I wrote about shortages of personal protective equipment, criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis as well as a booming business in fake “Islamic remedies” for the virus.
Now, the virus is spreading again. This time, it’s hitting communities that were largely spared during the first wave as well as reappearing in regions that were already badly hit.
According to official figures, the number of daily deaths from the virus had dropped to 34 on May 25. By July 6, however, the daily death rate had soared to 200, surpassing even the most deadly day of the first wave, April 14 (163 deaths). However, many commentators, including our Observers, say that the government is purposefully underestimating the death toll.
Daily deaths from Covid-19, according to official statistics.
‘What we need is at least a month of total lockdown across the whole country’
Sina (not his real name) is a doctor in a hospital in northern Iran. He says that they still had empty beds a month ago but that is no longer the case. His hospital has had to turn away sick people and send them to other hospitals, which are sometimes dozens of kilometers away because all of the nearby hospitals are as equally overwhelmed.
“Two months ago, we had 1,500 patients in our hospital. Three weeks ago, the number dropped down to 500, but since then, the numbers have continued to climb. Currently, we have about 1,100 patients that have tested positive for Covid-19. Before, we were seeing four deaths a day. Now, we are seeing more than 20. Our intensive care unit hasn’t had a free bed for the past 10 days.
The symptoms of Covid-19 that we are seeing have changed. During the first three months of the pandemic, we mainly saw people in respiratory distress. Now, the main symptoms we see are gastro-intestinal.”
At Masih Daneshvari Hospital, which is one of the main treatment centers for Covid-19 in Tehran, there are no more beds available and patients are being set up in the parking garage, either in chairs or in their cars. (Photo taken on July 6 by Mohammad Masoumian.)
“For me, the government bears the most responsibility for this situation. They encouraged people to return to work too quickly. They didn’t put in place any policies to contain the new pandemic. They could have made it mandatory to wear a mask, opened up step by step, and banned travel to and from red zones. But they didn’t do any of that. They just wanted to convince everyone that things were back to normal.
In my opinion, what we need is at least a month of total lockdown across the whole country and not just the most affected regions. It needs to be mandatory for everyone to wear a mask every time they go out.
Hospital directors and managers of cemeteries have been speaking to local media and expressing alarm at the rising number of deaths for several weeks.
On social media, all anyone is talking about is the second wave. But it wasn’t until July 2 that the Iranian president Hassan Rohani finally addressed the issue. He said the government “would consider” putting in place “rules and restrictions” in the red zones to try to contain the spread of Covid-19. But, for the time being, no concrete measures have been taken.”
‘We don’t have enough medical resources and people are dying’
Ali (not his real name) manages a public health organization in a town in southern Iran. He gives a dire assessment of the situation:
“We had coronavirus cases during the first wave but compared with other regions, it wasn’t that bad here. There were still beds available in our virus treatment centers and our death rate wasn’t very high [Editor’s note: Ali didn’t want to provide these numbers, noting that the Iranian government said that the number of Covid-19 deaths was a “national secret.”]. But the number of cases has been growing since mid-May. The hospitals don’t have any beds left and we had to ask the Revolutionary Guards to open a field hospital.
The number of deaths right now is much higher than during the first wave. And the victims are of all ages, the young as well as the elderly, even children. Mayors and local government officials asked for help from the capital of our province but we don’t have beds or doctors; we don’t have anything to give them. People are dying without the care that we were able to provide even just a month ago.”
The children’s ward in Mofid Hospital in Tehran is full of young people with Covid-19.
“When Tehran officially admitted that there were cases of Covid-19 in Iran, the authorities in our province took measures to prevent the spread. Our governor blocked the roads to prevent any non-essential travel to our area.
This allowed us to preserve our region. We also closed all the parks and asked people to work from home. But on April 29, the government canceled all restrictions and pressured local governments to do the same. People began to travel to our region again and, since then, the number of cases is rising each day. We are now a red zone, one of the most severely affected regions in Iran.”