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Iran Can’t Hide Its Coronavirus Explosion, But It’s Trying Hard—and Putting the World in Danger

Iran Can’t Hide Its Coronavirus Explosion, But It’s Trying Hard—and Putting the World in DangerIran’s deputy health minister was drenched in sweat at the press conference on Monday where he vehemently denied Tehran was covering up the extent of the coronavirus outbreak. He kept wiping his brow with his handkerchief and was in visible distress as he said quarantines were a “Stone Age” way to address the problem, and Iran doesn’t need them. Then, sure enough, that night he tested positive for the virus himself and put himself in quarantine. The irony of Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi’s case would be funny almost, were Iran’s conspicuous bungling of the coronavirus threat not a menace to the whole region and, indeed, to the world. As The Daily Beast’s partner publication, IranWire, revealed in an exclusive report Thursday, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has tried to address the epidemic by telling doctors to shut up about it, much as Chinese authorities in Wuhan did, disastrously, when the disease was just starting to spread last December.The “official figures” from Iran give the game away. At last count, 16 people have died from COVID-19, but only 95 cases had been confirmed. As Wired UK points out, that would be a death rate of about 17 percent, when the data available from China, where there are huge numbers to work with, suggests the death rate is closer to 2 percent. The statistics don’t add up. Canadian researchers cited by Wired suggest the Iran outbreak probably involves more than 18,000 people, and counting.* * *SILENCING THE DOCTORS* * *Following is the full IranWire article written by Aida Ghajar:IranWire can exclusively report that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have threatened Iranian medical specialists with reprisals if any of them were to disclose information regarding the spread of coronavirus in Iran.A group of specialist doctors met with Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi on Feb. 22, during which they reported on the latest findings regarding the spread of coronavirus in Tehran and other Iranian cities. But soon after the meeting, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) approached the doctors through the health ministry’s security office and warned the doctors not to leak any information from their discussions. The doctors were told that, if any details did leak, they would be held responsible and would suffer the consequences.Despite these threats, the information received by IranWire shows the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, especially in Tehran. The doctors who were present at the meeting offered Harirchi their assessment of the official news and figures and told him that the figures published by the government do not match the reality of the situation.As one of these doctors—whose name is withheld because of the threats from the Revolutionary Guards—told IranWire: “The statistics published by the government have nothing to do with reality of the situation and the number of infections is much higher than what the media reports. If things go on like this and if the Islamic Republic does not cooperate with the World Health Organization, we must expect a great disaster in the coming months and, only in Tehran, tens of thousands will be infected by coronavirus. This scientific estimate does not even include other epicenters like Qom. If we cannot come up with a framework to cooperate with the World Health Organization, our situation will become many times worse than in China.”This doctor pointed out that, right now, a number of clinics in Tehran have been quarantined and the government’s attempts to keep the reality of the situation a secret is a “crime” in the legal sense of the word.“Refusing to divulge real information to Iranians and to the international community is officially a crime because it endangers the lives of people not only in Iran but in other countries as well.”Donald Trump Takes Coronavirus So Seriously He Just Put Mike Pence in ChargeIn many countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Canada, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon, the first cases of coronavirus infections were brought in by Iranian citizens or by travelers who had visited Iran. This has led many countries to close their borders with Iran, in the air and on the ground.According to this doctor, the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran occurred just after the outbreak in China. “But the problem started when we did not recognize that this virus is the same as China’s coronavirus,” the doctor said. “We made a mistake when we identified it as a variant of influenza viruses.… But, after it became known that it had been a mistake, [officials] continued as before and did not disclose the facts.”* * *THE GOVERNMENT IS CLUELESS* * *The doctor said Iran’s government has no plans for containing the crisis. Officials have “no other choice except secrecy,” he added. “This will disgrace the Islamic Republic, if it becomes known that its government is clueless. But this can lead to a humanitarian disaster.”According to this doctor, after the meeting with the health minister was over, the Revolutionary Guards contacted each doctor who had been at the meeting. “They told us that we will be held responsible for even the smallest leak. But I could not keep silent anymore,” he said.On Monday, two days after the meeting and after the doctors were threatened, Gen. Hossein Salami, the top commander of the Revolutionary Guards, called Health Minister Saeed Namaki and announced that the Guards were ready to provide any and all assistance in fighting coronavirus and preventing its spread.On Feb. 25, in a televised speech, President Hassan Rouhani asked people to trust only statements by the health ministry for information about coronavirus.The Iranian Cyber Police have meanwhile reported that they have arrested a number of “rumor-mongers” about coronavirus since Feb. 21. Gen. Hossein Rahimi, commander of Tehran’s Cyber Police, announced the arrests.“Persons who want to create trouble for the people by spreading rumors and lying in cyberspace must know that the police surveils their behavior and will act against them decisively,” he said.Earlier on Feb. 21, Gholamreza Jalali, commander of Iran’s Civil Defense Organization, accused foreign media of “creating panic” by publishing inaccurate or misleading figures about coronavirus infections. He emphasized that coronavirus must not be turned into a “political crisis.”Jalali is the same official who, after floods had inundated many parts of Iran in early 2019, made strange statements about extreme weather, accusing Israel of “cloud stealing.” He claimed that “joint committees of Turkey and Israel” had stolen moisture and snow from the clouds over Iran.With the Islamic Republic and the Revolutionary Guards turning the coronavirus outbreak into a security issue, by treating infection figures as state secrets, by arresting people for “rumor mongering” and, now by threatening doctors whose duty is to tell the truth about infectious diseases, it seems the experts may be proved right about the likelihood of a humanitarian disaster. If the Islamic Republic continues in this way, we must expect a much bigger disaster than what is happening in China—not only for Iranians but for the world.The Russian Models Instagramming From China's Coronavirus CapitalRead more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.


As Virus Spreads, Koreans Blame Refusal to Stop Chinese Visitors

As Virus Spreads, Koreans Blame Refusal to Stop Chinese Visitors(Bloomberg) -- In a matter of days, South Korea has swung from confidence that it had escaped the worst of the coronavirus outbreak to a cautionary tale of how quickly the disease can plunge a nation into crisis.Confirmed cases of the deadly disease surged past 2,000 on Friday -- doubling in two days and raising alarm about the worst outbreak outside of neighboring China. Supermarket shelves are emptying, mask prices are soaring and hospital beds are running out in Daegu city, where the disease has stricken many from a religious sect. Epidemiological models predict that infections in Korea will top 10,000 in March.The surge has citizens looking for someone to blame, prompting fresh criticism of South Korea President Moon Jae-in, who confidently predicted two weeks ago that the virus would be terminated “before long” while refusing calls to halt all arrivals from China. With 13 dead from the virus, public fury is coalescing around the government’s handling of the outbreak, especially its efforts to accommodate the country’s bigger, more powerful neighbor.“The government failed to contain this outbreak,” said Kim Su-yeon, a self-development lecturer who lives in Suji, near Seoul. “They were late in their response and they should have blocked the Chinese from coming in from the start,” Kim said, adding, “They have been ineffective in all of their policies.”Governments in places including Japan and Hong Kong have suffered similar backlash for being slow to restrict Chinese visitors, while others that took a harder line, such as Singapore and Taiwan, have seen the pace of new cases slow. Still, it may already be too late for any policy shifts, with outbreaks centered in countries as far-flung as Iran and Italy making it harder to calibrate travel restrictions.Ban EntryIn Korea, disapproval of Moon has risen five percentage points to 51%, the highest since October, according to a weekly Gallup Korea tracking poll released Friday. Some 41% were satisfied by the president’s handling of the virus, compared with 64% two weeks ago. Tellingly, almost two-thirds said they wanted the government to ban all foreign entries from China, rather than the current policy of barring visitors from certain hot spots.The anger is translating into action, with more than 1.2 million people signing a petition demanding Moon’s impeachment for taking what it calls a pro-China approach to the outbreak. The backlash comes just weeks ahead of April 15 parliamentary elections that could put the president’s rivals back into power. A competing petition supporting Moon and the government has garnered more than 900,000 signatures.Moon spokesman Kang Min-seok called criticism of the country’s entry policies “regrettable” and argued that they had helped stem new cases from China.“We’ve rationally taken into consideration the effectiveness of outbreak-prevention measures, as well as the interests of our people,” Kang said in a statement Thursday.Coronavirus: Places That Have Imposed Travel RestrictionsInfections in South Korea are now accelerating more quickly than in China. Daily life has largely ground to a halt in hard-hit Daegu, a southern city of 2.5 million people known for producing textile and apples that’s long been a stronghold of the conservative opposition.“When the president said the virus will soon be under control and that we can go back to our everyday life to continue economic activities, that’s when people started to take their protective masks off, and things got out of hand from there,” said Lee Haemin, a 31-year-old man in the financial industry living in Seoul. “The local economy is now on the verge of falling apart.”Now, buses are empty, restaurants are shut and kids are staying home from school. A concert featuring K-Pop boy band BTS scheduled for March 8 was postponed. Seomun market -- the city’s largest, where vendors hawk everything from fresh vegetables to clothing -- has been closed until Sunday.“Our business is in trouble and we might need to extend the shutdown if this continues,” said Kim Young-ou, president of the Daegu Merchant Association. “I asked the president for financial aid and tax deductions when he visited Daegu, but I don’t know if it’s feasible.”Economic HitAnxiety about the impact on the economy is rising across the country, with the Bank of Korea on Thursday lowering its growth forecast for 2020 to 2.1% from 2.3% in November. The benchmark Kospi index had its worst week since August 2011. Korea’s Finance Ministry said Friday that stabilizing the economy would require extra budget funds in excess of the 6.2 trillion won ($5.1 billion) spent to counter the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, outbreak five years ago.Many Daegu cases have been traced back to South Korea’s “Patient 31,” a 61-year-old local woman who belongs to the Shincheonji religious sect. The church, whose founder says he’s a prophet sent by Jesus Christ to prepare for the end of the word, claims it has 300,000 members. Congregates sit elbow-to-elbow and knee-to-knee, in services that typically last one to two hours.How One Patient Turned Korea’s Virus Outbreak Into an EpidemicWhile authorities don’t yet know how Patient 31 was infected -- she didn’t have a record of traveling overseas -- reports of the sect’s members returning from services in China have inflamed public sentiment. Moreover, several Chinese cities have in recent days moved to enforce quarantines on anyone who recently returned from South Korea, a blanket action of the sort that Seoul has so far spared Chinese arrivals.Fraught RelationsDespite strong business and cultural links, China and South Korea have a complex and fraught relationship, including a shared history of Japanese occupation and fighting on opposite sides in the Korean War. Recent tensions, like how China froze out South Korean businesses and stopped tourism in 2017 after Seoul agreed to host a U.S.-backed missile system, linger close to the surface.Moon’s government fueled public anger when Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said in an exchange with lawmakers Wednesday that the “biggest cause was Korean nationals coming in from China.” He was emphasizing that most of the initial confirmed cases involved Korean nationals who visited Wuhan, not Chinese nationals visiting Korea.The administration has come under fire for failing to stockpile protective masks and sending many to China, when the country now faces shortages. South Korea exported $61.3 million worth of masks to China in January, up from $600,000 in December, according to customs data. Another $118.5 million of masks were sent in the first 20 days of February.‘Hasty Call’“Moon apparently prioritized the economy and diplomacy -- two issues that will really matter once the virus situation is over -- based on a hasty call that this will be over soon,” said Lee Jae-mook, who teaches political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “That made sense to the majority of South Koreans only before they saw other nations do the opposite: sacrifice potential economic benefit for the sake of people’s safety.”On Wednesday, the government limited mask exports to only 10% of daily production and pledged to distribute 3.5 million masks daily via post offices and pharmacies. Health authorities are also now testing around 10,000 people a day while sending extra hospital beds to Daegu.That’s done little to relieve anxiety for residents like Cho Eun-mi. The 32-year-old mother of two says she’s too afraid to go outside.“When I wake up, hundreds of patients are increasing every day,” she said. “The fact that those patients also visited places where I go, like Starbucks, supermarkets near my home, is really freaking me out.”\--With assistance from Peter Pae, Kanga Kong, Jihye Lee and Sam Kim.To contact the reporters on this story: Kyungji Cho in Seoul at kcho54@bloomberg.net;Yoojung Lee in Seoul at ylee504@bloomberg.net;Heesu Lee in Seoul at hlee425@bloomberg.net;Kyunghee Park in Singapore at kpark3@bloomberg.netTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Rachel Chang at wchang98@bloomberg.net, Brendan Scott, Emma O'BrienFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.




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