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State media in Iran admit the country is going through a fifth wave of Covid-19, with more than 500 deaths a day. It shows images of calm, well-equipped hospitals, but patients’ families, activists and doctors say that is far from the truth. They talk about dangerous overcrowding and shortages of basic needs, and post videos on social media showing patients being treated in hospital gardens and parking lots.

Iran’s health ministry announced on Monday that 588 people had died of Covid-19 in the last 24 hours, a record since the pandemic hit the country in February 2020. Doctors say the official figures have been vastly understating the numbers from the start.

Official data suggest that only 3.3 percent of Iranians are fully vaccinated against the virus, and there’s no clear national vaccination programme. Critics say that even after one and a half years, Iran’s government has not put in place effective restrictions to stop the propagation of the virus, allowing, for instance, huge religious gatherings to proceed.

>> Read more on The Observers: Iran’s failed Covid-19 vaccination campaign due to ‘political power struggle’

State-run media show calm, well-stocked hospitals; amateur videos show chaos

Health care workers are warning that Iran’s health care system could collapse in the coming days and create a human catastrophe like what happened in India in April and May. But state media show a very different picture. 

An amateur video posted on social media on August 4 shows massive overcrowding at the Imam Reza Hospital in Mashhad, in the northeast of Iran. The video, taken by a patient’s relative, shows wards and corridors packed to capacity, with some patients being treated in the hospital’s garden. Doctors in the city of 3 million people have warned the situation is unmanageable.

This video posted by a patient’s relative on July 31, 2021 shows overcrowding at the Imam Reza Hospital in Mashhad, Iran due to Covid-19 infections.

A TV report on the state-run Mashhad IRIB channel on August 5 showed a very different situation. While the report acknowledged that the hospital was at full capacity and included a doctor saying, “We are in the fifth wave and it’s deadly,” the images of the hospital showed an apparently well-equipped facility with patients getting beds, medicine and oxygen.

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This TV report on state-run Mashhad IRIB on August 5, 2021 shows the same hospital, Imam Reza Hospital in Mashhad, but with conditions that appear to be normal.

State-run media in other cities across Iran aired similar reports mentioning overcrowding in the voice-over, but showing images of hospitals appearing to function normally. They did not show patients being treated in the corridors or outside, as seen in numerous amateur videos online.

An amateur video posted on social media on August 3 shows overcrowding at the Masih Daneshvari hospital in Tehran, designated by officials as the capital’s main health care facility for Covid patients, also with patients being treated in the garden. 

This video posted on social media on August 3 shows overcrowded conditions at Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari hospital, the Iranian capital’s main Covid treatment centre. 

Another amateur video, taken at the Persian Gulf Hospital in Bushehr in southern Iran and posted on August 2, shows patients lying on the floor in corridors. 

This amateur video was taken at the Persian Gulf Hospital in Bushehr in southern Iran and posted on August 2, 2021.

‘We decide who lives and who dies’

Abtin is a doctor who works in a public hospital in a city in the center of Iran. (Abtin is not his real name; he asked for anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to foreign media). 

A fifth wave of Covid virus infections hit Iran three weeks ago. Over the last week every single test I’ve had done on my patients has been positive. It’s the worst situation we have had since the beginning of the pandemic in Iran.

All the hospitals in our city are full. I personally have seen 295 new Covid patients and ordered more than 240 CT scans of their lungs in the last 24 hours. I’m in contact with medical colleagues across Iran and I know it’s the same everywhere.

We do not even have sterile water for injections. We do not have simple saline needed for injecting drugs either.

We do not have enough oxygen. We have to cut off the oxygen for hours each day to conserve it. During the hours that it’s on, we provide it in half of the necessary quantity just to be able to keep on, hoping tomorrow we receive more oxygen.

As for the medicines we usually give to our Covid patients, I haven’t seen them for days now. We’ve run out. Completely. If patients’ families can find medicines on the black market, good for them.

We have no beds free. There’s no more space for stretchers in the garden even. When new patients arrive, I examine them but I have to send them home regardless of their condition. There’s just no space, not in the wards, not in the corridors, not in the garden.

Just yesterday I had to send home a man who was really sick, with 60 percent of his lungs infected. I’m not sure he will survive, but I had no other choice. We’re already at capacity with patients who are even sicker. We are in a position where we decide who lives and dies. 

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When I leave the hospital, it’s as if nothing is happening in this country. Shops and restaurants are still open. No special measures have been taken. State radio and TV admit that we’re going through a fifth wave, but the media don’t show what’s really going on. The state lies about the total infected number and the daily death toll.

They have set a quota for the Covid PCR test for each city. Our city quota is 50 tests per day. It doesn’t matter how many patients we have, all the city’s hospitals can order is a total of 50 tests per day, for a city with more than 125,000 inhabitants. That goes for every single city in Iran.

First off, this quota means the official infection numbers are meaningless. Yesterday, for instance, I personally saw 295 new corona cases, but our entire city only reported 50 new cases because we only had 50 PCR tests. 

Secondly, when my patients die, I’m only authorised to report his cause of death as Covid if he has had a positive PCR test. So if 145 people die from Covid in our city in one day, in the official documents there will be a maximum of 50 people.


People in Iran have been seeing fake numbers from the government for two years now – and unrealistic TV images of hospitals that are doing fine. They don’t care about the pandemic and want to get back to normal life. But these lies will end up killing people. People must understand the gravity of the situation so they take the proper measures to avoid getting infected. They need to know that if they get sick, they’re on their own, we can’t do anything for them.


>> Read more on The Observers: ‘There isn’t a single stretcher left’ in Iran as ‘apocalyptic’ wave of Covid-19 hits

According to the official tally announced on August 9, 94,603 people have died from Covid-19 in Iran so far. That figure is contested by experts. 

In October 2020, Hossein Qashlaqi, a member of Iran’s Scientific Council, estimated in an interview with Iranian media that the true death toll was four times higher than the official figure.