TEHRAN: Iran’s government vowed on Monday to be transparent after being accused of covering up the deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside China, dismissing a lawmaker’s claim the toll could be as high as 50.

The government announced Iran’s coronavirus death toll had jumped by four to 12 — by far the highest outside China — as several countries reported their first cases on Monday, even after imposing travel restrictions and strict quarantine measures.

But Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a lawmaker from the city of Qom, alleged Iran’s government was “lying” about the death toll. “As of last night, about 50 people have died” from the COVID-19 outbreak in Qom alone, he was quoted as saying by ILNA news agency after a closed session of parliament on the crisis.

The government rejected the claim. “I ask our brother who declared this figure of 50 deaths to provide us with a list of their names,” said Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi. “If the number of deaths in Qom reaches half or a quarter of this figure, I will resign.”

But people on Tehran’s streets were also suspicious. “State TV gives us statistics, but when we go to hospitals we see something different. The number of people who died is much more,” said Elahe Zarabi, 56, a housewife carrying bags of bleach.

Shoaib, a 24-year-old pharmacy employee, said the shop was running out of stocks as it had gone from selling 500 face masks a day to 10,000. “The mullahs are saying Muslims are immune because of their faith,” he said. “How will they quarantine a huge city like Tehran when they cannot even quarantine a hospital?”

Iran has been scrambling to contain COVID-19 since Wednesday when it announced the first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad.

Authorities have ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centres across the country as a “preventive measure”.

The government also vowed to be open about the disease’s spread. “We will announce any figures [we have] on the number of deaths throughout the country. We pledge to be transparent about the reporting of figures,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

Assadollah Abbassi, a spokesman for Iran’s parliament, announced the latest four deaths among 61 infections after Monday’s session.

Citing Health Minister Said Namaki, he said “the cause of coronavirus infections in Iran is people who have entered the country illegally from Pakistan, Afghanistan and China”.

Many of Iran’s neighbours have reported infections in people who had travelled to the country. Afghanistan on Monday reported its first case in a person who had been to Qom. Baghdad and Muscat also reported their first cases. Kuwait and Bahrain also confirmed their first novel coronavirus cases, all of whom had come from Iran.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2020