Satellite images appear to show that Iran is digging a huge number of graves to accommodate the rising number of deaths from the outbreak.
The images, first reported by The New York Times, were taken on March 1 by the private satellite company Maxar Technologies. They reportedly show two large burial trenches around 90 meters (295 feet) long that were recently dug in Behesht Masoumeh cemetery near the city of Qom, Iran’s religious capital considered holy in Shi'a Islam. Comparisons to older satellite images suggest the excavation of the new graveyard began as early as February 21.
Islamic tradition calls for burials to take place within 24 hours after death, so it's likely the graves are being dug in preparation for future deaths at short notice.
BBC’s Persian service has also shared a video that claims to show men carrying a coffin toward a burial trench at Behesht Masoumeh cemetery (video below). An investigative report by The Washington Post managed to geolocate the video and confirm it had been filmed in the cemetery.
“This is the section for coronavirus victims,” said the person filming the video.
The cemetery was also featured in another widely shared video that appeared to show dozens of body bags lining the floor of the morgue at the Behesht Masoumeh cemetery. Workers at the cemetery, who wished to remain anonymous, told CNN that coronavirus precautions have led to a stop in traditional Islamic burials for infected people, which include washing the body with soap and water before the burial. Instead, bodies of infected people were being treated with calcium oxide to prevent the virus from contaminating the soil at the cemetery.
Cases of Covid-19 in Iran were first reported in the city of Qom and it's still thought to be the epicenter of the outbreak there. By the latest count on March 13, Iran has at least 10,075 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the death toll currently stands at 429.
However, many suspect the real number of people infected with the novel coronavirus could be much higher than the authorities are letting on. Iran’s government was accused of a cover-up and mismanagement by lawmakers in Qom in late-February, who claimed the death count in the city was far higher than the official statistics.
Some have interpreted these recent satellite images as further evidence that Iran is hiding the true scale of the problem facing the country.
“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 expert on Iranian history and public health at George Washington University, told The Guardian.