Satellite images show mass graves in Qom amid Iran's coronavirus outbreak

Satellite images show mass graves in Qom amid Iran's coronavirus outbreak
Workers in the Iranian city of Qom are believed to have dug trenches in mass graves in February.
4 min read
13 March, 2020
People wear respiratory masks after deaths from coronavirus in Qom [Anadolu/Getty]
Satellite images of alleged mass graves in the Iranian city of Qom have heightened worries that Iran's outbreak of coronavirus is far more severe than authorities are admitting.

The images, revealed by the New York Times on Tuesday, suggest that Iranian workers dug trenches in mass graves in Qom's Behest Masumeh cemetery in February. 

According to the latest toll from the health ministry, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed 429 lives in Iran and infected more than 10,000 people.

The outbreak in Iran is one of the deadliest outside China, where the disease originated.

The BBC's Persian-language service, citing unnamed sources in Iran's health system, said at the end of February that at least 210 people had died in the COVID-19 outbreak. Iran's official death toll at the time was below fifty.

Most of the dead were in Qom or in the capital Tehran, the London-based broadcaster said.

On 24 February, at which time the trenches are believed to have been dug, a legislator from Qom accused the government of lying about the extent of the outbreak, saying there had been fifty deaths in the city alone.

Satellite images show Behesht Masoumeh cemetery in Qom [Maxar Technologies]
Deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi denied the allegations, but a day after doing so admitted to having contracted coronavirus himself.

"It doesn't surprise me that they are now trying to create mass graves and trying to hide the actual extent of the impact of the disease," Dr Amir Afkhami, an associate professor at George Washington University, told The Guardian.

Afkhami, who has written a history of Iran's experience of cholera epidemics, pointed to the trade relationship between Iran and China.

"Because of China's status as the country's principal commercial partner, the Iranian government took inadequate cautionary measures to restrict and monitor travelers from China," Afkhami said.

"Then, later on, Tehran's lack of transparency and unwillingness to take robust measures such as social distancing and quarantine, particularly at the epicenter of the outbreak, helped spread the virus."

Although many commentators believe Iran is covering up the true scale of the outbreak, some analysts cautioned against interpreting the satellite images without context. 

"Islamic customs call for speedy burials, often within 24 hours. Likely tens of people are dying daily due to #COVID19 in Qom, Iran. Two weeks ago, authorities announced they would prepare graves in advance," columnist Esfandyar Batmanghelidj tweeted

Batmanghelidj pointed to Iranian news reports in which journalists reported the digging of special graves in Behest Masumeh cemetery more than two weeks ago to enable the cemetry to be the "single burial place" for all of Qom's coronavirus victims. This could explain why one location has a high number of graves.

'Mild symptoms'

Meanwhile, a key adviser to Iran's supreme leader has been placed in quarantine after experiencing "mild symptoms" of the new coronavirus, Tasnim news agency reported on Thursday.

Ali Akbar Velayati, who advises supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on foreign policy, was "quarantined after having experienced mild symptoms of coronavirus," the agency said.

It quoted a spokesman at Tehran's Massih Danechvari hospital for its report.

The hospital, of which Velayati, a paediatrician by profession, is the head, is the main centre for coronavirus patients.

"Yesterday (Wednesday) afternoon, when the light symptoms appeared, doctors prescribed a test" for the 74-year-old Velayati, Tasnim said.

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He was later placed in isolation at his home and given medicine, the agency added without saying whether Velayati had tested positive for the virus.

But Tasnim said that Velayati's "general health is improving".

Velayati is a close adviser to Khamenei and served as Iran's foreign minister from 1981-1997.

Several other politicians, including a vice president, and officials both sitting and former have been infected, with some dying from the illness.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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