Leaked Documents Show Iran Has ‘Deliberately Downplayed’ Its COVID-19 Death Toll

The BBC has obtained documents showing that coronavirus has killed almost three times as many people as authorities have admitted.
iran coronavirus
Women in Qom, Iran. Photo: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Coronavirus has killed nearly three times as many people in Iran as the government has admitted, according to leaked data, fuelling suspicions of a deliberate cover-up in the hard-hit Islamic Republic.

Officially, Iran’s health ministry says that 14,405 people died from COVID-19 until July 20, the most recent date in the documents leaked to the BBC. But the data, which contains details of daily admissions to hospitals, shows that nearly 42,000 people had died with coronavirus symptoms by that date.


Similarly, while Iran’s official figures say 279,000 people have been infected with the virus, the leaked documents show 451,000 infections.

The higher death toll would make Iran the fifth most affected country in the world, after the US, Brazil, Mexico and the UK, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Iran, the worst affected country in the Middle East, has long been accused of lying about the true toll of coronavirus on its people. From early on in the outbreak, local officials spoke out about glaring discrepancies in the official figures; in February, lawmaker Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani accused officials of lying about the scale of the outbreak, saying there had been 50 deaths in the city of Qom alone when the regime was claiming there were only 12 in the entire country.

In March, satellite images revealed huge burial pits dug in Qom – the initial epicenter of the outbreak in Iran – and a World Health Organization official, Rick Brennan, told Reuters that the true number of cases in Iran might be five times the government’s stated figures.

READ: Iran’s coronavirus mass burial sites can be seen from space

Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think-tank, told VICE News that the leak gave further credence to what observers had been saying for some time about the Iranian government’s official narrative around the pandemic.

“I would go as far as to say there has been a deliberate attempt to downplay,” she said. “The regime is under multiple stresses … and showing their failure in a healthcare crisis, with so much loss of life, would be the icing on the cake of their waning credibility. They don’t want to see further unrest within the country.”

She said many Iranians had been sceptical since the start of the outbreak around the official account of the virus’s impact. “I think most average Iranians would be quite sceptical of the figures because they’re living through this crisis firsthand, and everyone knows somebody who has been affected.”

The BBC said the data was leaked by an anonymous source who said they’d shared the documents to “shed light on the truth”. The news organization said that details in the documents – which included patients’ identifying details, along with their symptoms and length of stay in hospital – checked out when cross-referenced with details of cases it already held information on.

Vakil said the fact the data had been leaked to an international outlet from inside Iran showed there was a clear desire from within the country for the government to tell the truth about the outbreak. But she added that while the leak may translate into greater calls for accountability from Iranian leaders, she did not expect it to pose any serious challenge for the authoritarian regime.

“I can’t imagine there’ll be any sort of commission, or people will actually be held accountable,” she said.