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Special Features

Lies, Misinformation and Makeshift Graves: A Chronology of Coronavirus in Iran

April 19, 2020
Shahed Alavi and Pouyan Khoshhal
30 min read
Iranian officials have repeatedly been secretive about the crisis, and continue to withhold figures for COVID-19 deaths, particularly in the provinces of Qom and Tehran
Iranian officials have repeatedly been secretive about the crisis, and continue to withhold figures for COVID-19 deaths, particularly in the provinces of Qom and Tehran
Statements issued and actions taken by the authorities of the Islamic Republic have been misleading, inaccurate and damaging
Statements issued and actions taken by the authorities of the Islamic Republic have been misleading, inaccurate and damaging
Speaking at a meeting of the National Coronavirus Headquarters, President Rouhani said that a lockdown was what Iran's enemies wanted
Speaking at a meeting of the National Coronavirus Headquarters, President Rouhani said that a lockdown was what Iran's enemies wanted
In July, officials contradicted one another about forthcoming religious ceremonies, and whether they would be marked indoors
In July, officials contradicted one another about forthcoming religious ceremonies, and whether they would be marked indoors
Schoolchildren returned to school on September 5 amid fears of a third wave of the virus as autumn approached
Schoolchildren returned to school on September 5 amid fears of a third wave of the virus as autumn approached

To our knowledge this is the most comprehensive account of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, and how the government dealt with the crisis, available in English on the internet. It starts with our contemporaneous reports of the first cases and runs through to the staggering escalation of Covid-19 deaths across the country: a situation the government failed to control for a range of reasons.

For the first 12 months of the pandemic IranWire updated this chronology on a daily basis. Since spring 2021 we have published updates in weekly instalments. For our separate, long-form report on ideological and economic factors that aggravated the spread of Covid-19 in Iran in 2020, click here

A review of statements from and actions by Islamic Republic officials in connection with the coronavirus epidemic since the first day China officially announced the outbreak in January 2020 reveals a catalogue of misleading information, combined with poor and highly damaging policy decision. By reviewing this collection one can glean insight into the many reasons behind the early secrecy and denials by Iranian officials and the factors that continue to worsen Iran’s ongoing epidemic today. At the outset at least, it’s not clear whether they had any understanding of the disastrous consequences their decisions would have. By now, in 2021, lessons should have been learned.

This chronology reviews how Iranian officials have dealt with the coronavirus epidemic from December 31 2019, the day that China announced that it had identified a new virus, to March 25, the sixth day of the new Iranian calendar year, the day that the step-by-step policy of quarantines started in Iran. The disinformation is extensive and runs to the Ministry of Health’s official statistics. For that reason, all the information presented in these reports should be taken with a pinch of salt where it comes from official sources.

The following is a month-by-month summary of events related to the pandemic in Iran as we reported them at the time. For each month, you can click through to a composite version of all the reports then filed by our Covid-19 correspondent that month. But even this isn’t exhaustive: a wider array of information, including smaller news articles, on-the-ground reports from citizen journalists and exclusives, is available in our dedicated coronavirus site section.

January 2020:

In January 2020, the world was just getting to grips with Covid-19: a respiratory illness that had first been detected in Wuhan, China, where the numbers of cases had been steadily rising since December. On January 12, China shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus and the World Health Organization outlined the symptoms associated with the virus in a statement. Iranian officials denied that the illness was having any impact on the Islamic Republic.

As the virus began to spread around the world, many countries took precautions, monitoring flights arriving from China and stopping flights from Wuhan. Iran did not take any precautions. 

On January 22, Iranian officials said a screening team was stationed at Imam Khomeini Airport and all travellers coming from China were being carefully monitored and diagnosed. A few days later, on January 26, the head of the health ministry’s Contagious Diseases Department, said that Iran was importing test kits from Germany. Officials maintained that there were no cases of coronavirus in Iran. 

Two days later, this changed, and they acknowledged that cases had emerged in Qom. By the end of the month, health ministry officials asked first Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri to stop flights between Iran and China, but this was not immediately implemented.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for January 2020

February 2020:

In February, Iranian officials continued to deny coronavirus was having any impact on the country, even as severe Covid-19 cases were being reported on social media. Officials claimed the necessary precautions were being taken, including temperatures being taken at airports. But in Qom, the number of cases was climbing, and people were losing their lives. 

Then on February 7, Iranian state TV aired a forced confession by someone who had been arrested for “spreading rumors” about cases in Kurdistan. On February 10, official media reported that a woman in Tehran had died from COVID-19.

As annual celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution approached, officials continued their denials. But notably on February 15, Ayatollah Khamenei avoided contact with Shia eulogists during an anniversary ceremony, whereas in previous years Iran’s media published photographs of these religious proceedings in which eulogists were seen kissing the Supreme Leader’s hand and standing close to him.

On February 19, Iran’s Civil Defense Organization published guidelines for fighting coronavirus, officially confirming the outbreak.  But parliamentary elections were due to take place on February 21, and some officials, including the Supreme Leader, accused people of using the virus to distract or dissuade people from voting. 

Cases in Qom continued to mount, but officials refused to quarantine or shut down the city. Finally, on February 27, Friday prayers were canceled in several cities. But the denials continued, and officials took pains to accuse the foreign media of inflating the depth of the coronavirus crisis in Iran. 

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for February 2020

March 2020:

In early March, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent Iran 7.5 tons of equipment and supplies to fight coronavirus. The day after this, Ayatollah Khamenei insisted the epidemic was nothing to worry about, though he urged people to pray. The WHO raised concerns over the lack of access to protective equipment for medical staff. 

As cases started to rise, MPs began to criticize the government’s failure to impose quarantines on affected areas. Provincial officials began to block entry to non-residents traveling into their provinces, and there was widespread fear that the failure to close down Qom had led to the spread of the virus. At least 12 political figures had already died of Covid-19, it emerged.

On March 16, President Rouhani insisted there would be no quarantines or closures in the run-up to the Persian New Year. By March 25, steps were taken to stem the rise in cases, including social distancing rules. Then, the lockdown began. By the end of March, Rouhani’s chief of staff announced that the quarantine was having a swift and positive effect. 

The health ministry put the total number of deaths from the epidemic at 2,517, a number that experts believed was a gross understatement. In an open letter on March 29, 100 Iranian political and civic activists accused Ayatollah Khamenei of turning the outbreak of Covid-19 into a national disaster.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for March 2020

April 2020:

The lockdown continued into April, with the National Coronavirus Taskforce announcing that covered bazaars, restaurants, exhibition centers and other non-essential businesses must be shut until further notice.

Contradictory statements and claims from the government continued, including information about when religious buildings could re-open, especially for the month of Ramadan, which started on April 24. 

At this point, medical experts and researchers stated that the number of people who had died in Iran from Covid-19 could be as much at 10 times the official figure. Meanwhile Iranians continued to suffer in dire financial straits, with unemployment on the increase and workers decrying how they had been treated during the pandemic. In late April, despite mounting cases of Covid-19 in Khuzestan province, workers from the Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Factory protested over unpaid wages. 

Also in late April, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged countries to respect human rights during the epidemic and listed 15 countries that were used the epidemic as an excuse to crush dissent and silence people, including Iran.

At the end of April, 3,600 people had been arrested for coronavirus-related “offenses” online.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for April 2020

May 2020:

In May, Iranian officials claimed Iran was a leading manufacturer of coronavirus test kits, while others said United States sanctions had prevented people from accessing the medical equipment they need.

At the same time, several provincial governors expressed concerns that cases were on the rise in their towns and cities, even as some industries and businesses, including at the country’s airlines, were beginning to reopen. The health minister warned as it had in April, that the country should expect a second spike in cases in the fall, along with a surge in influenza. 

Along with other government claims, the education ministry boasted that 60 percent of Iranian students with internet access had been connected to its remote learning portal. It also became mandatory to wear masks in mosques and on public transport. 

Domestic violence was on the rise in a number of provinces, though Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, dismissed that the situation was worrying in Iran. 

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for May 2020

June 2020:

June 2020 is likely to be remembered in Iran for the second nationwide wave of coronavirus, with at least 15 provinces reporting significant rises in cases and fatalities. In some cases, officials reported that provinces were actually experiencing their first spike, as the virus spread across the country.

Medical staff continued to contract the illness, and, on June 16, health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Laria announced that at least 7,400 nurses had contracted the virus since March. 

At the same time, the country was easing restrictions and some medical professionals began expressing alarm that people had begun to be less observant of social distancing guidelines. 

Despite this, President Rouhani continued to push plans for economic recovery. “I am afraid that people’s safety is being sacrificed for the sake of the economy," the chairman of the parliament’s Committee on Health said on June 30, adding that Rouhani appeared to be pretending life was returning to normal. 

The number of people who tested positive for Covid-19 across the country rose to 227,662 on June 30, following the detection of 2,457 new cases since noon on Monday, June 29, reported Sima Sadat Lari. She added that 147 coronavirus patients had died over the last 24 hours, bringing the official death toll in Iran to 10,817.

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for June 2020

July 2020: 

In July, as most provinces in Iran were still experiencing a second spike in Covid-19 cases, the Iranian health ministry’s newly-appointed spokeswoman consistently presented misleading, incomplete, and flawed data about the coronavirus epidemic in Iran and the government’s handling of it.

In particular, the government provided insufficient data on Covid-19 in the provinces, often blatantly omitting information about “red” areas or areas with rapidly rising numbers of cases and deaths and where hospitals were in danger of being overwhelmed and unable to cope. By the end of the month, Khuzestan province, one of Iran’s hardest-hit areas, moved back from an emergency state of alert to a state of high or serious alert.

At the same time, President Rouhani continued to push for businesses to open and remain open in an effort to bolster Iran’s economy, leading medical experts to claim he was embracing a policy of “herd immunity.” One epidemiologist who sits on the National Coronavirus Taskforce described the policy as a move toward possible “genocide.”

Officials also repeatedly gave inconclusive and misleading information regarding testing, and as the month drew to a close, several of them claimed that Iran was leading the way in finding a vaccine for the virus. 

Three important religious ceremonies were due to take place on July 31, August 7, and August 29, and throughout July, officials contradicted one another when discussing whether the ceremonies could continue in indoor public places. They also refused to say whether forthcoming national university entrance exams would be going ahead as scheduled. 

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for July 2020

August 2020:

The situation remained critical in August, and in Tehran, the officially-recorded daily death toll stayed at 100. 

Political wrangling over nationwide university entrance exams continued. Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf called for exams to be postponed, but Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi defended plans for exams to go ahead, quipping that the number of participants would be fewer than a day's crowd on a Caspian Sea beach, appearing to not understand the difference between people taking exams in an enclosed space and people outdoors with the opportunity for social distancing.

On August 7, it was reported that the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a Shia spiritual leader with a huge following around the world, including in Iraq, where he is based, had donated a billion dollars to Iran to help the country fight the epidemic. At the same time, health ministry spokeswoman Dr. Sima Sadat Lari stated that of the one billion dollars from Iran’s own National Development Fund that had been allocated to fight coronavirus, only 30 percent had been received so far. She also said the people of Qom must wear masks and if they failed to do so, the death toll recorded earlier in the year would return. However, just as Lari made her statement, the chairman of parliament’s Health Committee said that between 40 and 50 percent of Iranians could not afford to buy masks.

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for August 2020

September 2020:

In September, Iranian schoolchildren returned to the classroom in many parts of the country, though some areas where there were still high numbers of coronavirus cases took alternative measures. Rouhani marked the beginning of the new school year in an online address, ringing a bell and insisting that a good education for the nation did not mean public health had to be compromised.

Politicians took steps to start the impeachment process against Education Minister Mohsen Haji-Mirzaee, who had been criticized for giving contradictory messages about the return to school and whether it was mandatory for students to attend class. It was the latest in a string of attempts to find a scapegoat for the ongoing crisis. 

Rouhani also urged people not to compare Iran’s handling of the crisis with that of other countries, adding that it was important to remember that Iran was “unique” because of its distinct cultural and religious heritage, but also because of the harsh sanctions people had to live under. 

In the meantime, as autumn approached, fears escalated that a third wave of the virus was also on its way.

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for September 2020

October 2020: 

Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf visited a hospital Covid-19 ward on October 6, prompting President Rouhani to cancel a meeting between the heads of the three branches of government for fear that Ghalibaf might be infected. Iranian also authorities voiced concerns over a new spike in coronavirus cases as people prepared to mark the Muslim holiday of Arb’aeen on October 8.

After extensive discussions, the National Coronavirus Taskforce announced on October 10 that people who didn’t follow rules designed to protect the public, including not wearing masks in public places, would be fined. Earlier in the month there had been reports that the country was experiencing a shortage of masks.

Following a spike in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in mid-October, President Rouhani’s administration ordered lockdowns in five metropolitan areas: Tehran, Isfahan, Urmia, Karaj, and Mashhad ahead of a three-day holiday. Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, announced: “Travel should be restricted to and from five cities where coronavirus infections are rather high.”

But in an attempt to avoid the travel bans, many people set off on their journeys earlier, meaning there was still a very real risk that the virus was transmitted by people traveling between provinces and high- and low-risk areas. Officials continued to contradict one another on this point as 30 out of 31 provinces remained in a high state of alert throughout the month.

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for October 2020

November 2020:

As November got underway, Iran recorded all-time high numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths. As the pandemic continued to spread more rapidly in Iran, health officials started being more direct, conceding that hospitals were indeed running out of beds and that the official figures for cases were inaccurate. Many now said the official death toll should be doubled or even quadrupled to get a more accurate sense of how the crisis was unfolding.

Mohsen Hashemi, president of Tehran City Council, said if nothing further was done to contain the spread of the virus it could lead to “a tsunami of death” over the month of November. On November 2, Dr. Minoo Moharez from the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Scientific Committee used the word “fiasco” to describe the situation in Tehran, and said the nation’s capital must be locked down as soon as possible or “we will have a catastrophe. We have so many coronavirus patients, so many cases, so many patients in a critical condition, and so many problems. Now imagine we add traveling and public gatherings to all this. We must close down Tehran as fast as we can. On weekends and holidays we must close the roads to prevent people from traveling.” Dr. Moharez also pointed out that lockdowns had been announced on Monday of the previous week but, in reality, everything remained open.

This battle between experts, the National Coronavirus Taskforce and officials continued throughout November as cases and fatalities continued to rise. Kerman province broke records for daily deaths in the province since the outbreak of the pandemic, with a total death toll of 1,413.

On November 10, a curfew was imposed in Tehran and many other cities. Non-essential shops, businesses and services were ordered to begin closing each day at 6pm, effective from Tuesday, November 10. The National Coronavirus Taskforce and President Rouhani both announced that these new restrictions would greatly affect the number of coronavirus infections, but health officials were skeptical, arguing that a two-week total lockdown was necessary to reduce infections and fatalities and to give medical staff time to recover from exhaustion. Even the military showed support for the lockdown.

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for November 2020

December 2020:

In December, information gleaned from contract tracing showed that only 20 percent of people who had tested positive for coronavirus comply with quarantining instructions and 73 percent violate it. Dr. Alireza Zali, director of Tehran’s Coronavirus Taskforce, described the situation as a “time bomb”. At the same time, he said Iranians can look forward to more rapid coronavirus test kits being distributed, though he added they would be going only to government hospitals.

Air pollution in Tehran reached a very high level and people with underlying diseases, the elderly, children and those suffering from heart problems were warned to stay at home by the Tehran Environmental Protection Bureau. There were mounting concerns that air pollution could have a detrimental impact on people’s immune systems and their ability to fight the virus.

Iranian authorities blamed the low numbers of flu vaccines on sanctions. After repeated promises of widespread distribution, a little more than two million doses of flu vaccine were distributed for the inoculation of high-risk groups such as those suffering from underlying diseases, the elderly and pregnant women.

There were numerous reports about coronavirus vaccines that have proved effective in trials. On December 3, the United Kingdom became the first country to approve the Pfizer vaccine. The Islamic Republic has announced many times that it is ready to buy Covid-19 vaccines and there have been unconfirmed reports that it will be paid for out of the National Development Fund. But again, such promises are undermined by doubts over the effectiveness of these vaccines and by a tendency to blame sanctions for anything the government is unable to provide. 

Officials expressed concern that the solstice holiday of Yalda would result in a new surge in cases, given that the holiday is traditionally marked with large family gatherings.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for December 2020

January 2021:

As January began, many provinces across Iran were in a fragile state in terms of coronavirus cases. Although the situation had appeared to stabilize toward the end of 2020, with no cities on “red” or high alert, as 2021 got underway, four cities were officially placed back in the high danger zone.

The situation was exacerbated by severe air pollution in 10 major metropolitan areas, including Tehran and Isfahan. There were also concerns that religious ceremonies for the forthcoming Fatimiyya days, when Muslims mourn the martyrdom of Fatimah al-Zahra, the Prophet Mohammad’s youngest daughter, could result in a fresh surge in numbers.

Then on January 9, 2021, Ayatollah Khamenei made a sudden TV appearance in which at a stroke, he blocked Iranians’ access to all Covid-19 vaccines made in the UK or the US: all those that had at that time been approved by the WHO. His basis for this was that the two countries were “not trustworthy or reliable”.

Following this speech Iran’s Red Crescent society had to cancel a shipment of 150,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine donated by philanthropists, while the fate of the consignment Iran had already paid for from the WHO’s Covax facility was unclear. Later in the month, the National Coronavirus Taskforce moved to reassure people that 2m doses would still be in Iran as early as mid-February.

Clinical trials for three domestically-produced vaccines including CovIran-Barekat, developed by a parastatal holdings company under the Supreme Leader’s control, continued throughout January.

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for January 2021 

February 2021:

At the start of February, the chairman of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Scientific Committee announced that Iran’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout would officially start on February 19, with people prioritized according to their occupation and age.

Officials continued to scramble to procure Covid-19 vaccines that were “not American or British” in line with the Supreme Leader’s fatwa. The first shipment of Russian-made Sputnik-V vaccine arrived in the country on February 4 but only contained enough doses to fully inoculate 250,000 people. Other tiny shipments of 25,000 or less came in over the course of the month.

Iran’s first vaccine, CovIran-Barekat, completed its first phase of human trials – during which the vaccine was administered to just 56 volunteers. No results were published but the firm creating it, Setad, claimed “two Arab countries” had already asked to buy it. He declined to name them.

A second Iranian-made vaccine, the Razi Institute’s Cov-Pars, was unveiled on February 7. Like CovIran-Barekat, no official data was provided on its efficacy. Agriculture Minister Khazem Khavazi chose these words to boast of Cov-Pars’s credentials: “Testing on 25 monkeys was an unprecedented record and a big undertaking, during which a large number of the Razi institute’s staff contracted the virus.”

Provincial officials meanwhile warned of surges in cases in localities such as Fars province and Khuzestan. Celebrations for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution were supposed to take place in a “symbolic manner” but on February 9, crowds of marchers still flooded the streets. As cases began to spiral out of control in western Iran, officials said they would close the border with Iraq ahead of the Nowruz holiday in March.

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for February 2021

March 2021:

Amid a sluggish start to Covid-19 vaccinations in Iran, hampered by delayed deliveries of the Sputnik and Sinopharm vaccines, and with the Nowruz (New Year) holiday fast approaching, health officials repeatedly warned that travel between “red” and “orange” cities was banned.

Case numbers and Covid-19 death rates continued to rise across the country, with the deprived border province of Khuzestan particularly badly-hit due to the arrival of the Alpha variant. So bad had the situation become by mid-March that Health Minister Saeed Namaki said he was “begging” people not to travel, while the head of Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce said nothing coherent was being done – again – to stop vacationers moving to and from the capital.

Despite the Supreme Leader and President Hassan Rouhani’s earlier promises that Iranians would not be used as “lab mice” for foreign vaccines, the third phase of clinical trials for the Cuban-made Soberana vaccine began in Iran, using Iranians as test subjects, on March 11.

Mask shortages continued to plague various Iranian cities including Tehran in the run-up to Nowruz. Near the end of the month Iran’s officially-recorded Covid-19 death toll passed 60,000. On the eve of Nowruz most cities were on a low enough alert level that travel could continue unabated in most places, as medical professionals warned of a coming nationwide fourth wave.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for March 2021.

April 2021:

Record numbers of new cases of coronavirus infection continued to be reported in Iran in April. In Tehran, more than 1,000 patients were hospitalized a day in the first week of the month. Iran continued to struggle to secure Covid-19 vaccines from abroad while the date on which CovIran-Barekat would be made available was pushed back to late May 2021.

The Health Ministry announced a shutdown non-essential businesses in 257 cities from April 10, with Friday prayers also suspended in some other cities including Gilan and Fars. Iran also closed its borders with 39 countries on April 11. Field hospitals were set up in Qazvin province, while in Khuzestan, 50 percent of tests came back positive in the week leading up to April 8.

The Islamic Republic scrambled to procure vaccines as case numbers soared in the latter half of the month. On April 15 IRNA News Agency claimed Iran had finalized a deal with Russia and paid for 60 million doses of Sputnik-V – but these were only set to arrive “by the end of the year”.

The sheer number of new cases and fatalities prompted the Health Ministry to introduce two new categories to its “traffic-light” system for flagging high-risk zones: “black” and “super-red”. Close to 70,000 deaths from Covid-19 had been recorded by April 22, a massive increase compared to those reported in previous months. Doctors in East Azerbaijan reported they were running out of oxygen.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for April 2021

May 2021:

At the start of May, it became rapidly apparent that two more infectious coronavirus variants, those first detected in India and South Africa, had entered Iran. The first cases were detected in Hormozgan, Yazd, Bushehr and West Azerbaijan and quickly spread throughout the country over the month. The issue was compounded by an outbreak of black fungus infections in some hospitals, which had also been observed in recovered Covid-19 patients in India.

Minoo Mohraz, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce, and others called for a “total quarantine” of any province where the Delta variant was found. Failing to do this, Mohraz said, would lead to the spread of the variant across the country. The call went ignored.

The Ministry of Health began to square up to a challenge that had been on the cards since the very beginning: that of vaccine hesitancy in Iran. Officials struggled to convince people to get their jabs in some areas: an issue Iranian doctors attributed to a lack of public trust in the health system, as well as the Sputnik and Sinopharm vaccines.

At the same time, others clamored for the government to speed up the drive. By May 23, just 3.5 million people in a population of 80m had received a first dose of any Covid-19 vaccine. Health Minister Saeed Namaki promised Iran’s own Coviran-Barekat vaccine would be available from June.

Near the end of the month, fears began to mount that the presidential election slated for June 18 would lead to a fresh surge of new infections. As a precaution, the National Coronavirus Taskforce announced that traveling between provinces was banned – from June 1 to June 7 only.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for May 2021


June 2021:

Four days into June, a little over 4.5 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine had been administered in and just 532,929 people were fully inoculated. Widespread shortages saw many health centers close their doors, leaving many Iranians waiting for their time-sensitive second dose in the lurch. The head of PR for Iran’s medical council blamed the shortages on China, saying eight million bought doses of Sinopharm had not arrived.

Meanwhile in the southern and eastern regions of Iran, new infections with the Delta variant continued to soar. The National Coronavirus Taskforce’s week-long ban on inter-province travel turned out to only apply to private vehicles, meaning citizens piled into bus terminals and onto the metro instead.

On June 9 Ebrahim Raisi, the frontrunner in Iran’s presidential race, held an in-person campaign rally in Ahvaz, Khuzestan. It drew criticism from Hassan Rouhani, who ordered the responsible agencies to issue fresh warnings about attending pre-election events. The election went ahead as expected on June 19, with the infection risks only slightly mitigated by the fact that a mass boycott left many polling stations standing empty for much of the day.

Iran’s Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency permit for use of the CovIran-Barekat vaccine inside Iran. This was met with widespread alarm as no data from the clinical trials had been published, and it had no permit from the WHO. On June 22 it was reported CovIran-Barekat – made by a firm under the Supreme Leader’s control – would cost $8 on the open market compared to £3 for AstraZeneca. In response, FDA spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour called the critics “jerks” while Ali Khamenei posed for a photo in which he supposedly received the jab in a bid to quell the panic.

By the end of the month, more than 1,000 new cases of Covid-19 – mostly the Delta variant – were being reported in Sistan and Baluchistan. Provincial prosecutor Mehdi Shamsabadi begged Health Minister Saeed Namaki to implement a new travel ban, or face a “tsunami of death” in the province.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for June 2021

July 2021:

At the height of summer, daily recorded new infection rates across Iran skyrocketed to 23,000 while the domestic vaccination drive remained sluggish. Those with money to burn scrambled to get to Armenia, which was offering free Covid-19 vaccines to travellers. Iran’s Foreign Ministry tried to discourage this desperate measure on the basis that people might face long queues at the border.

Then in mid-July, 1.2 million doses of CovIran-Barekat vaccine disappeared off the production line. A spokesperson for Setad, the Supreme Leader-controlled company that developed the jab, initially said lamely that they had been “lost” before later suggesting vials had been spilled or broken on the production line. By the middle of the month, a survey by Iranian Students’ Polling Agency found a quarter of Iranians believed they would “never” be vaccinated against Covid-19.

By July 15, more than 2,500 Iranians were being admitted to hospital every day with severe Covid-19 as health experts warned a fifth wave was on the way. But in Tehran alone, on July 18 more than 17,000 people came to hospital asking for treatment, stoking fears of a beds crisis. One patient reported being charged more than $7,200 for a bed by a private facility. By the end of the month, beds earmarked for armed forces and social security patients had been repurposed for Covid-19 patients and the situation in Tehran was described as “beyond repair”.

 On July 22, outgoing President Hassan Rouhani made the bizarre claim his government had fulfilled its promise to control coronavirus in the country. Health Minister Saeed Namaki, after failing to meet his own promise to vaccinate 400,000 Iranians a day from July 10, continued to insist people were “satisfied” with progress so far. It came even as Alireza Zali, head of the Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, said the drive had been unsatisfactory and Namaki’s own deputy, Iraj Harirchi, apologized to Iranians for the delays.

It was then announced that the provinces of Tehran and Alborz would be locked down from July 20 for six days. Many citizens from these code-red zones immediately set out for the scenic northern provinces in private cars, including rented ones with local licence plates, happily paying the official fine of $120 or $240 to do so.

On July 27, Iran ranked first  in the world in terms of the number of newly-recorded infections, outstripping even India. Iran’s official Covid-19 death toll, thought to be about half of the real total due to a dearth of testing, hit 90,000 at the end of the month.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for July 2021

August 2021:

The Shia holy month of Muharram began on August 10. Just as in 2020, mourning ceremonies took place across Iran despite doctors asking that they be called off due to the hospital beds crisis and fifth wave of coronavirus in Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expounded on the importance of Shia traditions while Saeed Mahdavi, director-general of the Islamic Development Bureau in Gilan, echoed the exact sentiments voiced by President Hassan Rouhani last year. “Muharram ceremonies must not be shut down,” he said – adding the “enemy” was trying to create a dichotomy between health and religion. On August 18, a police chief in Mashhad admitted police could not stop Muharram processions from going ahead.

Dr. Alireza Zali, the director of Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, broke rank on Friday, August 6 to tell Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that he and colleagues had requested a total lockdown, but it had been rejected by higher-ups. Five days later, he revealed on record that the Islamic Republic had lied to the World Health Organization (WHO) about Covid-19 fatalities. Outgoing foreign minister Javad Zarif responded on Instagram, dismissing Zali’s statements as “libel”, “slander” and “attacks”.

On August 11, Ali Khamenei appeared to soften his lethal ban on UK- and US-made vaccines, describing securing vaccines as now “the country’s first and foremost urgent issue”. President Ebrahim Raisi admitted Iran’s domestic vaccine production was “not enough” and between 30 and 40 million doses would have to be imported, to the chagrin of some who had been trying to import vaccines for months and been blocked by the Health Ministry. Health Minister Saeed Namaki claimed again that importing vaccines was not the ministry’s job, repeating that would-be sellers “broke their promises and those who claimed to be our friends left us alone in the middle of a slaughterhouse.” Meanwhile, a well-positioned source told IranWire that the 1.2 million doses of “lost” CovIran-Barekat vaccine were believed to have been contaminated with live virus.

At the end of the month, after Ashura on August 20, it emerged that at least 2,000 Iranians who had received both doses of Sinopharm had lost their lives to Covid-19, raising concerns about the vaccine’s efficacy. Overall in Iran, 75 times the international average number of fully-innoculated people had died of Covid-19. By the end of August, Iran’s official Covid-19 death toll – well short of the real number – had passed the 100,000 mark.

Read Iran's coronavirus chronology for August 2021.

September 2021:

In the first week of September, reports of medical centers closing due to vaccine shortages blighted Tehran and Isfahan even as the deputy director of Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, claimed the drive was progressing “at a good speed.” With age-based vaccinations now officially over, questions remained about which segments of the population now had priority for a Covid-19 jab, with university students, taxi drivers and Iranians accompanying elderly parents reporting being turned away from their appointments.

Then in late September, health officials announced an abrupt about-turn: the focus would switch to the young. In the week leading up to September 17 the government began to invite youngsters aged 12 to 18 for their first jabs, presumably in a bid to reopen schools again without delay. Mohammad Reza Shanehsaz, president of Iran’s Food and Drug Administration, had announced that vaccines made by Sinopharm and Iran’s Pasteur Institute had been licensed for children aged under 18. It came even though not all adults in Iran have yet been fully protected from severe Covid-19 and on September 28, a long-awaited first batch of Pfizer vaccines was “canceled”.

Justifying the move, September 21, Health Minister Bahram Einollahi claimed it was safe to do so because more than 50 percent of Iranians had been vaccinated, predicting that within “two or three weeks” 70 percent of the population would be fully inoculated. On that date a total of 48,281,975 doses of vaccine had been administered in Iran, and less than 15 million recipients had had two doses. Given that there are 60 million Iranians aged over 18, it’s not clear how the health minister arrived at that figure.

Around this time, larger groups of “anti-vaxxers” began to gain momentum again, taking to the streets to push back against “compulsory” vaccination. The Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Fars News Agency threw its weight behind the protesters, while the cleric Ahmad Panahian claimed: “The vaccine is a conspiracy by Bill Gates to reduce the world population by 15 percent.” State media outlets like IRNA and Coronavirus Task Force spokesman Alireza Raeesi were forced to try to dispel the hysteria. Even among non-conspiracy-theorists, figures published at the end of the month found 14 percent of Iranians are vaccine-hesitant.

Finally at the end of the month, the government unveiled its new plans for what it called “smart quarantine”: a vaccine passport-style system in which certain public places would reopen only to Iranians who could show a digital vaccine certificate. People’s movements would be tracked, a member of the Taskforce said, via a specially-designed new IT system. A trial of the new system was set to take place in Qazvin in October.

Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for September 2021.


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