Iran’s COVID-19 crisis fuelled by politics and religion

[Reporter] This is the view of Iran the regime would like you to see.

Beautiful shots of tranquil cities.

People lining up in an orderly fashion to have their temperature checked at roadblocks.

All images of a situation well in hand Reinforced by the soothing commentary of a designated government spokesman.

Not quite.

Not only did Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei not manage this situation well from the beginning he in fact denied there was any problem.

He said the outbreak was a hoax, propaganda from Iran's enemies.

Today he acknowledged it was real but likely planted in Iran by the United States.

Iranian American Borzou Daragahi covers the ran for the British newspaper, The Independent.

He says the regime had first provided two explanations for the outbreak.

One is it was propaganda aimed at besmirching Iran and China and so on and the other is that it's some sort of bio weapon.

And you hear that from people — loonies on all sides around the world including in Iran.

[Reporter] But soon there was undeniable evidence from the holy city of Qom that the outbreak was under way.

Cell phone video emerged of coffins being hurriedly buried at a cemetery along with allegations that deaths were being covered up.

[Reporter] Iranian president Hassan Rouhani eventually acknowledged that there was a problem.

But suggested it was not serious enough to require any quarantine.

In fact, he encouraged people to vote in the February 21st elections.

The regime was a disaster in the way it handled it.

Canadian journalist Graham Wood covers Iran for Atlantic magazine.

So if it had early on just said the city of Qom needs to be contained you have to practice extreme social distancing and please please do not go out in the street to vote then they would have probably slowed down the epidemic and maybe bought themselves some time to not be completely paralyzed by it.

Then came the infamous scene with Iraj Harirchi Iran's deputy Health Minister trying to play down the outbreak while coughing and sweating on camera.

It was soon revealed that he had contracted COVID-19 and that gave people an indication that maybe the government doesn't have this in hand.

If the person who is responsible for fighting the virus is standing there coughing on his colleagues, sweating around them and probably involved in a super spreader event himself on camera.

Trita Parsi is the founder of the National Iranian American Council.

When you have a government at a time of crisis, at a time of a pandemic and there isn't public confidence and trust in what they say and what they do then that just makes the pandemic and the crisis around it all the more dangerous.

[Reporter] Sure enough the virus started spreading through the upper ranks of the Iranian government including Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar who sat just feet from the president at a leadership meeting.

Then a very senior member of the council that chooses the Supreme Leader died of the virus and before long the list of the infected and the dead in the upper ranks of the government became astonishingly large.

And so I think there's also a case where a lot more people in Iran have it but the ones that stand out are the ones who get the test and the ones who tend to get the test and go to the front of the line to get the test are the political elite.

Over the years there has been a distinctive characteristic of Iranian society that makes it especially vulnerable to a pandemic.

The devotion of intense religious believers on display at local shrines.

And this is almost perfectly what you're supposed to do during a contagious epidemic.

That is touching your face, touching pieces of metal that other people have recently been touching .

And so the the rituals that have been enacted for hundreds of years there are unfortunately well designed to spread a virus like this so there have been some some Imams, some Ayatollahs who have said keep on doing this.

Keep on doing this.

God likes it and he'll protect you.

The government announced it because of the pandemic the religious shrines would be closed.

The local Imams would have none of it.

This is tremendously dangerous.

We have now a study from a leading university in Iran that says that if these precautions are not taken seriously then this can lead to a pandemic inside of Iran that would leave three and a half million people dead.

True believers recorded themselves licking the gates of a shrine supposedly to clean off the coronavirus.

It shows, I think the danger of fundamentalism in Iran as well as you know other places where extremists feel the need to assert themselves.

The government put out propaganda images showing men with fogging machines supposedly disinfecting entire streets which most experts regard as useless in fighting this virus.

Meanwhile, horrific videos began appearing on Iranian social media showing the real depth of the crisis.

In this one, recorded in the Qom morgue, the dead are piled up in body bags on the floor because there is no place to put them.

This week, U.

S.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that in spite of the pandemic the United States was increasing sanctions against Iran.

Many see that as a grave mistake that could hurt the rest of the world.

If this virus is allowed to fester and grow in any other country the risk of that spreading elsewhere is significant.

Very, very significant.

Now we know quite clearly that in this globalized world, with this amount of interaction that the spread of the virus anywhere actually constitutes a threat to humanity everywhere.

Iran marked the Persian New Year on Friday.

An occasion that usually involves family celebrations.

Perhaps a visit to the cemetery to honour departed loved ones.

Instead the celebrations are cancelled and trips to the cemetery are reserved for new burials of family members.

Today the Iranian death toll reached 1685.

Terence Mckenna, CBC News, Toronto.

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