The death toll from the coronavirus in Iran is almost triple what the Iranian government claims, according to an investigation by the BBC’s Persian service.
The government’s own records appear to show that nearly 42,000 people have died from symptoms of Covid-19 through July 20, compared to 14,405 reported by its Department of Health.
The number of people infected is also almost double the official figures: 451,024 against 278,827.
Iran has been one of the worst affected countries outside of China.
In recent weeks, she has suffered a second sharp increase in the number of cases.
The first death in Iran from Covid-19 was recorded on January 22, according to lists and medical records that have been transmitted to the BBC. It was almost a month before the first official case of coronavirus was reported there.
Daily number of deaths from Covid-19 in Iran
Official figures vs data not covered, from January 22 to July 20, 2020
Since the virus outbreak in Iran, many observers have questioned the official figures.
There have been irregularities in the data between national and regional levels, which some local authorities have spoken about, and statisticians have tried to give alternative estimates.
A level of undercoverage, largely due to testing capacity, is seen around the world, but information leaked to the BBC reveals Iranian authorities reported significantly lower daily figures despite a record of all deaths – suggesting that they have been deliberately deleted.
‘Shedding light on the truth’
The data was sent to the BBC from an anonymous source.
It includes details of daily admissions to hospitals across Iran, including names, age, gender, symptoms, date and length of periods spent in hospital and underlying conditions. that patients might have.
The source claims to have shared this data with the BBC to “shed light on the truth” and end “political games” over the epidemic.
The BBC cannot verify whether this source works for an Iranian government agency, nor can it identify the means by which they gained access to this data.
But the details on the lists match those of some living and deceased patients already known to the BBC.
The difference between the official figures and the number of deaths on these registers also corresponds to the difference between the official figure and the excess mortality calculations until mid-June.
Excess mortality refers to the number of deaths above and beyond what one would expect under “normal” conditions.
What does the data reveal?
Tehran, the capital, has the highest number of deaths with 8,120 people dying with Covid-19 or similar symptoms.
The city of Qom, the initial epicenter of the virus in Iran, is the most affected proportionately, with 1,419 deaths – or one death with Covid-19 per 1,000 people.
It should be noted that, across the country, 1,916 deaths were non-Iranian nationals. This indicates a disproportionate number of deaths among migrants and refugees, most of whom come from neighboring Afghanistan.
The general pattern of cases and deaths in the leaked data is similar to that in official reports, although of a different size.
The initial increase in deaths is much larger than the Health Ministry figures and by mid-March it was five times the official figure.
Lockdown measures were imposed during the Nowruz (Iranian New Year) holiday at the end of the third week of March, and there has been a corresponding drop in cases and deaths.
But with the easing of government restrictions, cases and deaths started to rise again after the end of May.
Importantly, the first death on the leaked list occurred on January 22, a month before the first coronavirus case was officially reported in Iran.
At the time, health ministry officials were adamant in recognizing only one case of the coronavirus in the country, despite reports from journalists in Iran and warnings from various medical professionals.
In 28 days until the first official recognition on February 19, 52 people had already died.
Doctors with first-hand knowledge of the matter told the BBC that Iran’s health ministry was under pressure from security and intelligence agencies in Iran.
Dr Pouladi (not their real name) told the BBC that the ministry “was in denial”.
“Initially they didn’t have test kits and when they got them they weren’t used widely enough. The position of the security services was not to admit the existence of the coronavirus in Iran, ”said Dr Pouladi.
It was the perseverance of two brothers, both doctors from Qom, which forced the Ministry of Health to recognize the first official case.
When Dr Mohammad Molayi and Dr Ali Molayi lost their brother, they insisted that he should still be tested for Covid-19, which came back positive.
At Kamkar hospital, where their brother died, many patients were admitted with symptoms similar to Covid-19 and they did not respond to usual treatments. Nevertheless, none of them have been tested for the disease.
Dr Pouladi said: “They had some bad luck. Someone of decency and influence has lost his brother. Dr Molayi had access to these gentlemen. [health ministry officials] and did not give up. ”
Dr Molayi posted a video of his late brother with a statement. The Ministry of Health finally recognized the first recorded case.
Nonetheless, state television ran a report criticizing him and falsely claiming his brother’s video was months old.
Why the cover-up?
The start of the epidemic coincided both with the anniversary of the Islamic revolution of 1979 and with the legislative elections.
These were major opportunities for the Islamic Republic to demonstrate its popular support and not risk damaging it because of the virus.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused some of wanting to use the coronavirus to undermine the election.
In fact, the election had a very low turnout.
Before the global coronavirus pandemic hit, Iran was already going through a series of its own crises.
In November 2018, the government increased the price of gasoline overnight and severely cracked down on the protests that followed. Hundreds of protesters were killed within days.
In January of this year, the Iranian response to the US assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, considered one of Iran’s most powerful figures after its Supreme Leader, created another problem.
Then the Iranian armed forces – on high alert – fired missiles by mistake at a Ukrainian airliner just minutes after taking off from Tehran International Airport. All 176 people on board were killed.
The Iranian authorities initially tried to cover up what had happened, but after three days they were forced to admit it, resulting in considerable loss of face.
Dr Nouroldin Pirmoazzen, a former MP who was also an official in the Ministry of Health, told the BBC that in this context, the Iranian government was “anxious and fearful of the truth” when the coronavirus hit Iran.
He said: “The government is afraid that the poor and the unemployed will take to the streets.”
Dr Pirmoazzen points out that Iran has blocked international health organization Médecins Sans Frontières from treating coronavirus cases in central Isfahan province as proof of the safety of its approach to the pandemic.
Iran was going through difficult times even before the military confrontation with the United States and the coronavirus hit.
The sanctions that followed Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018 hit the economy hard.
Dr Pouladi says, “Those who brought the country to this point are not paying the price. It is the poor of the country and my poor patients who are paying the price with their lives. ”
“In the confrontation between the US and Iranian governments, we are crushed by pressure from both sides. ”
The health ministry said the country’s reports to the World Health Organization regarding the number of coronavirus cases and deaths are “transparent” and “far from any discrepancies.”