Chinese medical workers arrive at Tehran airport, Feb. 29, 2020, to help Iran with its coronavirus response. (IRNA photo)
Chinese medical workers arrive at Tehran airport, Feb. 29, 2020, to help Iran with its coronavirus response. (IRNA photo)

Concern about Iran’s worsening coronavirus outbreak has become so great in China, a key ally, that users of dominant Chinese microblog Sina Weibo have made it a top discussion item for days.

VOA reviews of Weibo’s “Hot Search” feature Friday and Saturday found that at least one Iran coronavirus-related story appeared in the microblog’s top 10 list of trending topics on both days, alongside other popular topics related to Chinese entertainment and domestic news.  

Iran coronavirus cases-death toll map

Iran’s health ministry said confirmed coronavirus cases in the country rose to 388 Friday from 245 a day before, while the death toll rose by eight to 34. The latest figures maintained Iran’s status as the country with the second-highest number of fatalities from the virus, after China, where it first emerged in December.

Weibo screen grab, Feb. 29, 2020

Early Saturday, China time, news of Beijing sending medical experts to Iran, its longtime economic partner and major energy supplier, was ranked seventh in Weibo’s Hot Search trends.  

Chinese Ambassador to Iran Chang Hua tweeted a photo Saturday morning, Iran time, showing the group of six Chinese experts, five in Red Cross uniforms, as they arrived at Tehran’s airport with a donated shipment of medical supplies.

A day earlier, Chang quoted a tweet from the Iranian Embassy in Beijing, in which the Iranian mission posted photos of boxes that it said contained 50,000 Chinese coronavirus detection kits and breathing devices being prepared for a flight from Guangzhou to Tehran Friday night.

“Further assistance will be sent,” Chang wrote in a message quoting the Iranian Embassy tweet. “Be strong Iran,” he added.  

China also has sent 250,000 face masks to Iran in recent days. The Chinese government’s gestures of support for the Iranian people appeared to be well received by Weibo users, with many expressing solidarity with Iran.  

Weibo screen grab Feb. 27, 2020

A Weibo user responded to a Thursday post by Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po newspaper about the Chinese medical deliveries by saying: “(Our) #Iran #brothers have to hold on. Last time, Iran helped China and emptied its house for us. This time, it is our turn to support you!”

The man, surnamed Liang, is a verified Weibo user with 97,000 followers and serves as a general manager of Zhongying Building Materials Trading in Guangdong province. His praise of Iran for “emptying its house” was a reference to Tehran’s deliveries of 3 million masks to China by early February, as Beijing battled to contain its own coronavirus outbreak, the world’s most serious to date.

Another major theme of Chinese social media users’ reaction toward Iran’s escalating health crisis has been shock.

Weibo screen grab, Feb. 28, 2020

A screen grab of Weibo’s top trending topics early Friday China time showed the top item was news of Iran’s Vice President for Women’s and Family Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar contracting the coronavirus. The eighth-highest topic was Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, Hadi Khosrowshahi, dying from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.

A Thursday Weibo post by China’s state-run Global Times newspaper about Ebtekar’s viral infection drew more than 6,000 reposts, 10,000 comments and 200,000 likes. Fewer than 60 of the comments were visible to the public, with the newspaper blocking the rest. Of those visible comments, most expressed shock that an Iranian official as senior as a vice president was infected with the virus, as well as hope that Iran could overcome the crisis soon.

Some Chinese Weibo users criticized U.S. sanctions that have hurt the Iranian economy as part of a U.S. policy of imposing “maximum pressure” on Tehran to end perceived malign behaviors. They said those sanctions have made it harder for Iran to cope with the coronavirus.

Other Weibo users were critical of Iran, echoing assessments by U.S. and U.N. officials that Iranian authorities have been underreporting the extent of coronavirus cases in the country.

Some users also said weaknesses in the Iranian health care system and shortages of medical supplies appear to have contributed to Iran’s relatively high ratio of virus deaths to confirmed cases.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said it is ready to provide more aid to Iran through a Swiss humanitarian trade arrangement that is meant to ensure the aid goes to the people who need it. Washington has long accused Tehran of causing medical shortages by corruptly diverting aid to Iranian elites.  

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service, in collaboration with VOA’s Mandarin Service and Extremism Watch Desk.