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Coronavirus Outbreak In Iran Has Tehran Residents Doubting Government Response


The dramatic outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran has raised new doubts among Iranians about their government, also some questions about the U.S. The disease has reportedly killed 26 people, and about 250 cases have been confirmed. Schools, concerts, even Friday prayer sermons have been canceled in Iran.

NPR's Peter Kenyon was just in Tehran and has this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: If any Iranians had faith in their government's promises to defeat the coronavirus, that faith was likely shaken when they saw the video posted by the man in charge of combating the virus - Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi. A day after giving a press conference at which he mopped sweat off his face repeatedly, Harirchi announced that he, too, was sick.


IRAJ HARIRCHI: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: I would like to inform you that I also got corona, he said, adding that he had isolated himself and was beginning treatment. He repeated the government's assurances, saying, quote, "we will defeat the corona."


HARIRCHI: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: Such embarrassing disclosures wouldn't come as a surprise to Iranians like Shahrzad, who says she never puts much stock in promises from the government.

SHAHRZAD: Iranian government. Iranian government always prefer everything by late or nothing.

KENYON: Like most people interviewed for this story, she gave only her first name, fearing retribution for talking to an American reporter. News of the virus dominated conversations in Tehran and sparked a few conspiracy theories as well. A 63-year-old man who gives his name is George Ali says he loves America, but he has no doubt the U.S. is behind this outbreak.

GEORGE ALI: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: He says the virus is one of the weapons the U.S. tried to use against China, so he's sure America is behind it, and now it has also reached Iran. He says the 2011 Hollywood film "Contagion" is evidence for his theory.

At Iran's main railway station, the manager says their main defense against the virus has been to start cleaning the trains inside and out multiple times a day instead of once each night. But trains are still stopping at Qom despite the effort to quarantine the city where the virus first appeared.

Ever since Iranian news media began reporting on the virus, pharmacies have been mobbed. Over the last weekend, customers politely waited their turn only to be told all too often that the supplies of masks and gloves had been exhausted.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Farsi).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Farsi).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: A woman storms out of one pharmacy saying, no masks, no gloves. They don't have anything. Outside another pharmacy tucked away in a small alley, Pegah, a clinical psychologist, clutches a bag of masks and gloves and says she was lucky to find them.

PEGAH: Today I went to pharmacies. And actually, it was too crowded that I felt that maybe I get some disorder or disease in that pharmacy.

KENYON: Not far away, 52-year-old Giti says she's an American citizen with family in the U.S. She suspects the government deliberately delayed announcing news of the virus so as not to depress the turnout for last week's parliamentary elections.

GITI: And I think it was worse. They just didn't mention it.

KENYON: That's the question, that they waited to announce until the people were already dead, the first...

GITI: Yeah. Everything is politics.

KENYON: You think they were...

GITI: Definitely. Definitely.

KENYON: They thought maybe it would go away or...

GITI: They thought they going to hold it until the...

KENYON: Until the elections.

GITI: ...The election.

KENYON: As it happened, election turnout was low anyway, and hardline candidates gained a majority in parliament. They'll be part of a government desperately trying to contain the coronavirus and to keep those already ill from spreading it further.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Tehran.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.