Middle East

Rare voices from Iran’s epic coronavirus outbreak tell of stumbling government, deluged hospitals

The scale of suffering in one of the world’s largest outbreaks has largely been obscured
People wearing protective clothing carry the body of a victim who died after being infected with the coronavirus at a cemetery outside Tehran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

ISTANBUL — Iran has been struck by one of the most severe coronavirus outbreaks in the world, but the voices of Iranians affected by the pandemic have remained largely unheard outside the country’s borders. The scale of their suffering has been obscured by often upbeat stories about survivors in Iran’s official media and by an inscrutable government many suspect is underplaying the toll.

Aided by Iranian hospital records obtained by The Washington Post, however, reporters were able to contact covid-19 survivors and the families of victims. They recounted tales of valiant medical workers, overtaxed hospitals and a government that had been far too slow to raise the alarm.

“Awareness-building was way too late,” said a young architecture student who was hospitalized. “Many people were already infected.”

Nearly 70,000 Iranians have tested positive for the virus and more than 4,000 people have died, including some of Iran’s most prominent officials, according to the government health ministry. The human toll has gone largely unremarked upon in Western countries absorbed by the wave of deaths in places such as Italy, Spain and the United States.

The medical records, from 56 hospitals in Tehran, include detailed information about thousands of coronavirus-related cases between late February, when Iran reported its first infection, and mid-March. The hospitals — which represent about a quarter of the approximately 200 medical facilities in the city admitting virus-related cases — tested at least 5,500 patients in that period. Just under half tested positive, while many more tests appeared to be pending.

Beyond the numbers, the records provide a glimpse of a nation reeling from its latest terrible trial and seized with anxiety and confusion. Some people who were interviewed were not even aware that the hospital records showed that their relatives had tested positive for coronavirus.

In interviews, a farmer said he took his sick father to a Tehran hospital and was horrified at the chaos they saw inside.

An infected Iranian student said she feared she had passed the coronavirus along to her already ailing father.

A widow recalled how Iran’s failing economy had already left her husband hopeless and no longer interested in caring for himself, long before the virus took his life.

In the hospital, she said, “we saw many families losing dear ones.”

The following accounts have been edited for clarity and were provided on the condition of partial or complete anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing public matters in Iran.

A 23-year-old unemployed teacher from Tehran said five doctors diagnosed her with the flu before she tested positive for the coronavirus.

I got infected in Mashhad in late February. We would not have traveled to other cities if we knew the risk was so high. There was not enough awareness raising at the time. Now there is, but I think it is too late.

I went to five different doctors and they all said it was influenza. Finally, I was hospitalized in Loghman Hospital with severe respiratory symptoms. Then I was moved to Modarres Hospital, where the medical crew was amazing. Although they were very busy, they showed a lot of attention and care. The medical crew in both hospitals were really caring. But it was not that crowded at that time.

I was in the ICU for five days with my mother. She had chest pain that they told her was indicative of the virus. It took six days for the test results to come out. Hers was negative but mine was positive. I live with my mother in a flat that is 40 square meters. I had a lot of contact with family and friends before hospitalization. But nobody got it from me.

I was in a wheelchair for a week. I could not even take one step.

Since the day I was released I left the house only once, and that was to go to the hospital. I was told that I would carry the virus for 14 days after recovery. We do not even let my sister enter the house. Twenty-four days have passed, but I still have kidney pain, shortness of breath and fatigue. Walking and day-to-day chores make me tired.

I do not know much about life outside. I just hear from the media that they are taking it seriously now, although I think it’s too late.

(hudiemm/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A 50-year-old farmer from a village outside Tehran took his elderly father to a hospital in the capital after he had trouble breathing. Frightened by what they saw in the hospital, they didn’t stay. The son was unaware that hospital tests showed his father had tested positive.

Our village has about a hundred families. My dad had respiratory symptoms in February, but he suffers from lung and heart disorders anyway. We took him to Tehran. They wanted to hospitalize him, but with the atmosphere I saw, I did not allow this.

The nurses were panicking. One of them was shouting, “Corona! Corona!” — pointing to my dad. The way they were disinfecting beds was violent, and nobody was explaining to me what was happening. I decided to take him home. Thank God he is fine now.

Nobody is infected in our village. We had difficulties getting permission from the governor to close our roads. Finally, today we finished blocking the last road that was open.

Everything that happened in the past week should have been done 40 days ago, two months ago. It has been too late. Maybe it was because of [the anniversary of Iran’s revolution], maybe because of the election. [Both were in February.] Nobody knows why they waited so long to take these actions.

Coronavirus cases in Tehran

Aylin, a 20-year-old architecture student from Tehran, said her father, a construction supervisor, was prematurely sent home from the hospital because of overcrowding.

My dad got corona and was released from the hospital at the beginning of Nowruz [the Iranian New Year last month]. I haven’t seen him for two months now. He is under a lot of pressure, both physically and psychologically. When they decided to release him, he still had symptoms. He has kidney failure, so he can’t be quarantined at home, because he needs kidney dialysis every few days.

He should not have been released at all, but they said they do not have space for him anymore. It is very hard for him.

We don’t know how he got infected. It could have been from me. Around mid-February, I started to have a sore throat and then was sick for two weeks. I went to three doctors and they could not diagnose me — the third doctor said it was H1N1 [influenza]. Because he goes to the hospital regularly for dialysis, he could have gotten it from someone there. I haven’t visited him, in order to not put my mother, who I live with and who has other illnesses, at risk.

Some hospitals had management problems — releasing people with their consent, while they still needed medical care. Others were working really hard and from their hearts.

Awareness-building was way too late and many people were already infected. Even now, they resist announcing quarantine.

Maedah, 50, said her 51-year-old husband, Alireza, went to the hospital when he developed breathing problems in late February. He died two days later.

He did not have fever. He did not have any cold symptoms. He only had short breaths. After we took him to the hospital, his fever started. His kidneys stopped working and he had dialysis. My husband passed away because of a heart attack, but he could have received better medical care if it was not for of the load of corona patients and the chaos in the hospital.

I do not think the real statistics are being released, mostly because they don’t want people to panic. But I think people need to know the real statistics. When my husband went to Loghman Hospital, we saw many families losing a dear one. Developed countries are treating their patients better, although many people are victims of this virus everywhere in the world now.

Alireza was born in Tehran and had a small shop for years. In 2016, with the economic recession in Iran, he went bankrupt and could not get back on his feet. He became very depressed and hopeless about life in the past four years and did not care about himself at all. He used to love having friends and relatives over and was very generous, but after the bankruptcy he felt alone. He felt neither his friends and family, nor the government, supported him.

We have two children, a 17-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter. My son is introverted and more patient than my daughter. She had a special connection with her dad and cries and mourns all the time these days. She has a lot of anger and blames me and her aunt for taking her father to the hospital.

I loved my husband and am still shocked by his death. He was okay one day and had the shortness of breath and passed away in 48 hours. I still expect him to come home at any time.

Bennett reported from Washington.

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