Coronavirus appears to be spreading among Iranian elite: report

On Thursday, Iranian media reported that the country’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, had tested positive for the coronavirus, and The Washington Post suggested “infections appear to be rapidly spreading among the Iranian political elite.”
author_image Laurie Mylroie

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) On Thursday, Iranian media reported that the country’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, had tested positive for the coronavirus, and The Washington Post suggested “infections appear to be rapidly spreading among the Iranian political elite.”

In addition, the head of the national security and policy committee of the Iranian parliament, Mojtaba Zolnour, also announced on Thursday that he, too, had the virus. The 56 year old parliamentarian is from Qom, one of Shi’a Islam’s two holiest cities and the epicenter of the virus in Iran. Another parliamentarian from Qom, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, announced earlier this week that he had the virus, as did a parliamentarian from Tehran, Mahmoud Sadeghi. The mayor of a district of Tehran, Morteza Rahmanzadeh, also has the disease.

The deaths of two prominent Iranians were also announced on Thursday: Hadi Khosrowshahi, a senior cleric and former Iranian ambassador to the Vatican, as well as Elham Sheikhi, a professional athlete and member of the Iranian women’s futsal team (futsal is a form of soccer, played indoors.)

Khosrowshahi was 81 years old. Most of the 2,800 coronavirus deaths world-wide have been among older individuals. However, Sheikhi, who lives in Qom, was only 23.

Thursday’s announcements follow Tuesday’s news that Iran’s Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, also had the disease. Just the day before, he gave a press conference, claiming that Iran had the coronavirus under control. 

Read More: Iran’s Deputy Health Minister reveals he has coronavirus, amid continuing concern over its spread 

Graeme Wood, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, a highly-regarded US magazine, described the “incredible video” of the news conference, “at once comic and horrifying,” of Harirchi “assuring the public that the situation is being addressed, while sweating and coughing on colleagues and his audience because he had contracted the coronavirus.”

Iran’s Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, is seen repeatedly wiping heavy perspiration from his face during the press conference in Tehran on Feb. 24, 2020. (Photo: Iranian TV)
Iran’s Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, is seen repeatedly wiping heavy perspiration from his face during the press conference in Tehran on Feb. 24, 2020. (Photo: Iranian TV)

On Wednesday, Ebtekar attended an Iranian cabinet meeting, sitting “a few yards” from President Hasan Rouhani, The New York Times reported. That same day, Rouhani announced that Iran had no plans to impose quarantines, including in Qom, while he blamed the US for “spreading tremendous fear” about Iran’s handling of the coronavirus.

Iran has the most deaths from coronavirus outside China—26, while it has reported only 245 cases. By contrast, South Korea has the most cases outside China, 1,766, but with only 13 deaths. Public health experts have asked why the mortality rate in Iran is so much higher than it is elsewhere, roughly around 2%.

The readiest explanation is that Iran is underreporting the disease. That, in essence, is what the World Health Organization (WHO) has said. The executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, Dr. Mike Ryan, told journalists in Geneva on Thursday, “This disease came unseen and undetected into Iran, so the extent of infection may be broader than what we may be seeing.”

Ebtekar is known to Americans from forty years ago, when she was a spokesperson for the young Iranians who seized the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

The hostage crisis, in the early days of the Iranian revolution, was used by radical elements to solidify their grip on power and led to an enduring confrontation between Washington and Tehran.

Controlling the coronavirus is a challenge even for relatively capable governments. Japan is widely regarded as mishandling the situation on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship anchored off Yokohama, for a two week quarantine. The quarantine was counterproductive, as conditions on board the ship caused the disease to spread.

Somewhat similarly, many South Koreans blame their government for being too slow to address the dangers from the virus, out of a misplaced consideration for China, which was loathe to acknowledge the potential extent of the disease.

The challenge of dealing with coronavirus is much greater in Iran. Its public health system is far less capable than Japan’s or South Korea’s, and any real effort to deal with the spread of the virus would require Tehran to address the disease in Qom.

Graeme Wood described in graphic terms the unsanitary conditions there, including at its main holy site, the shrine of Fatima Masumeh, daughter of Shi’a Islam’s seventh imam and sister of its eighth.

Grief, including tears, is a “commandment,” and when “the weeping pilgrims” reach the metal cage that surrounds the tomb, “they interlace their fingers with its bars and many press their face against it, fogging up the shiny metal with their breath.”

“In a single day, many thousands pass through the same cramped space—breathing the same air, touching the same surfaces, trading new and exotic diseases,” Graeme wrote.

Editing by John J. Catherine