Dubai, October 26: As coronavirus infections reached new heights in Iran this month, overwhelming its hospitals and driving up its death toll, the country’s health minister gave a rare speech criticising his own government’s refusal to enforce basic health measures.
“We asked for fines to be collected from anyone who doesn’t wear a mask,” Saeed Namaki said last week, referring to the government’s new mandate for Tehran, the capital.
“But go and find out how many people were fined. We said close roads, and yet how many did they close?” Namaki’s speech, lamenting the country’s “great suffering” and “hospitals full of patients,” clearly laid the blame for the virus’ resurgence at the government’s door — a stark contrast to the usual speeches from officials who point the finger at the public’s defiance of restrictions. But one day later, the minister had a vastly different message.
“We should not cause panic for people in vain,” Namaki said in a speech carried by the semi-official ISNA news agency. “We should never announce that we don’t have empty (hospital) beds. We do have empty beds.”
The rhetorical about-face is typical of Iranian leaders’ inconsistent response to the pandemic that many see as helping to fuel the virus’ spread.
Experts say the mixed messages reflect the fact that the leadership has little room to impose severe restrictions that would damage an already fragile economy — and thus stoke public anger.
“The country is already under such pressure, and Iranians are already policed,” said Sanam Vakil, a researcher on Iran at Chatham House, a London-based policy institute.
“If they can’t provide economic resources to help people, to then be overly authoritarian and enforce health measures would undermine their legitimacy even further.”
More than 32,000 people reportedly have died in what is the Middle East’s worst outbreak — and a top health official stressed recently that the true number is likely 2½ times higher.
And it shows no signs of abating. In the last week, Iran shattered its single-day death toll record twice and reported daily infection highs three times.
In a sign that tensions over the government’s haphazard response are coming to a head, even the country’s supreme leader took aim at authorities on Saturday. He demanded for the first time they prioritize public health over “the security and economic aspects” of the pandemic, without elaborating.
“When the Health Ministry determines restrictions, all agencies must observe and enforce them without taking into account other considerations,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared.
For months, even as officials have issued increasingly grim warnings, the government has resisted a nationwide lockdown that would undermine an economy reeling from severe U.S. Sanctions, re-imposed in 2018 after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Despite appeals from the United Nations and rights groups that sanctions be eased during the pandemic, America slapped new ones on Iranian banks this month. (AP)