WASHINGTON – A senior member of the Iranian Medical Association says the death toll from the coronavirus is three to four times the official figure released by the government. This is the latest warning from Iranian doctors urging political leaders to take more aggressive measures to contain the pandemic.
Hossein Gheshlaghi, a senior member of the Supreme Medical Council of Iran, a nongovernmental professional association that licenses doctors, made the extraordinary claim when the Iranian government faced another surge in infections.
Gheshlaghi’s comments follow a series of statements and letters from the professional association since March calling on the government to follow scientific advice and allocate more resources to medical staff on the front lines of the crisis.
In a letter to President Hassan Rouhani released on Tuesday, the association adopted a serious tone, citing “unacceptable death rates”. The group called for urgent, coordinated action within the government, saying that “without national unity and decisive action, we cannot control the spread”.
To contain the virus, the government, along with military and law enforcement agencies, must take binding action and expand testing and contact tracing, the letter said.
At the moment, patients are already arriving at the hospital in a critical condition due to a lack of early detection, the association said in the letter. The association wrote that 40 to 50 percent of those who die of COVID-19 in hospital may have been diagnosed earlier.
The letter also urged the government to keep the exhausted medical staff safe and to pay “their late wages”.
Since the February pandemic, the Iranian secret regime has asked persistent questions about whether it is exposing the full extent of the crisis. The comments from Gheshlaghi, as well as a senior official from the Ministry of Health, were highly unusual, adding to the feeling that the government was struggling to get the virus under control.
The state-run news agency Mehr quoted Gheshlaghi as saying that field statistics, data from medical personnel, so-called “buried numbers” and positive Covid-19 tests showed that the death toll was much higher than the government had recognized.
Part of the reason for the discrepancy was that medical teams had not recorded any new deaths from the virus, according to Gheshlaghi, but the Ministry of Health did not add the names of recent victims to the official toll.
Earlier this month, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said the number of deaths from the coronavirus was up to 2.2 times higher than official data. Harirchi had come under fire in February for attempting to downplay the effects of the virus despite repeatedly wiping his forehead at a press conference. The next day he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Harirchi’s comments appeared to be an attempt by the ministry to be more open about the fallout from the virus and possibly shift responsibility to other parts of the government as frustration among the population increased, political analysts said.
The Iranian Ministry of Health said Wednesday that 415 people had died from the coronavirus in the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 33,714. Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sada Lari said there were 588,648 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
If Gheshlaghi’s claims are correct, it would bring the death toll from the virus to around 101,000 to 135,000.
The Iranian government has yet to respond to allegations that it underestimated or downplayed the real toll. The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said the comments made by senior officials claiming the higher death toll “confirm that the government has presented a very deceptive picture of the reality in Iran from day one.”
Iran has suffered the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East. The hospitals were overloaded and the medical staff exhausted. According to health authorities, some hospitals no longer have beds for new patients.
Three doctors in two hospitals in Tehran recently told an NBC news reporter in New York that government numbers on the virus were confused and skeptical. They also said there was an issue with the reliability of some test kits.
Iranian authorities recorded one death from the virus every four minutes this week, according to state television.
The virus has reached the top level of Iran’s political leadership. MPs and more than a dozen current and former civil servants contract the disease. An adviser to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was among those infected.
Iranian parliament spokesman Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf tweeted on Wednesday that he had tested positive for coronavirus.
Along with the pandemic, Iranians are struggling to make ends meet in a volatile economy and tighten US sanctions. The country’s currency, the rial, has crashed down in value against the US dollar over the past year.
The government’s handling of the coronavirus has been marked by contradicting actions and messages. Officials first tried to downplay the virus when authorities refused to close overcrowded religious shrines. As infections rose in March, the government ordered the closure of offices and non-essential businesses. The restrictions were soon lifted, only to be resumed as infections increased.