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Iran, an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East (over 5,000 deaths and 80,000 infected), has become a scene where science and common sense are fighting the conspiracy theories and rumors in a fierce battle. Social media are flooded with fake Islamic medicine adverts promising “to cure the coronavirus”; the state TV channels are full of official, yet contradictory interviews on health topic plunging the Iranians into deep confusion. Worse yet, locals are rapidly becoming poorer. The thing is that COVID-19 has left a lethal impact on Iran’s economy, which is already suffering from US sanctions, high inflation (40%!), and a complete lack of proper management.
Reza Khani (name’s changed so the person could speak freely), a web-designer from Tehran, shared with The Storyfy his thoughts and observations on what is going in his country.
Cover Photo on the main page: FARS News Agency
- Reza, when and how has the coronavirus outbreak started in Iran?
Two elderly people tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the religious city of Qom, 120 km from the capital of Tehran, on 19 February. Later that day, they both died. Supposedly, one of them was a merchant who traveled between Qom and Wuhan in China. When the Qom citizens found out about it, many of them, trying to run away from the virus, began hastily leaving the city and fled to their relatives, – thus, the virus had been spreading throughout the country and far beyond its borders. (First cases in the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, and even Canada, Belarus, and New Zealand have all been traced to Iran, and many of them mainly to Qom city – Ed.) And in a week, or so, we had already 300 infected in the whole of Iran (officially, in 24 provinces out of 31 – Ed.)
- What did the government do? Closed Qom?
No. On the contrary, invited the pilgrims! You see, Qom is a holy city for Shia Muslims – like the Vatican for Catholics. (Qom welcomes around 20 million pilgrims from all over the world annually. There are over 50,000 religious seminarians, institutes, and universities in the city as well as almost 200 shrines, mosques, and historical sights – Ed.) It is hard to believe, but a few days after first deaths from coronavirus had happened, the head of the Qom’s main shrine (who is also the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in Qom) called it a “place of healing.” He encouraged people to come to Qom and heal their mental and physical diseases!
- Oh my… Were people keeping coming?
Pretty much. In a week, there were a few videos from the shrines which have gone viral on social media, pulling many Iranians into shock and panic. In one video, the man licks the gates of the main Fatima Masumeh Shrine in Qom, stating that, thus, he would take in all the coronavirus and protect others. In another video, a man walks around the same shrine and shouts something like, “coronavirus is nothing in the Shia shrines.” A few days later, the first guy who’d had a talk with the police posted another video apologizing for his behavior. And this was the time when the police started to arrest people for making such videos.
FROM THE STORYFY: Just at the end of February, 24 people were arrested, and more than a hundred received warnings from the Iranian cyber police. They would monitor all the news published in the country’s cyberspace, and, as they say, punish those who spread rumors regarding the coronavirus outbreak in Iran and disturb the society.
After a few weeks of hesitation, finally, all the shrines in the country were closed for visitors – it happened already in mid-March. Right after, there were a couple of fights between the police and worshippers who tried to break in the shrines while shouting religious slogans. Some people were arrested. I think the fact that the coronavirus spread actually has begun in Qom city is extremely hard for devotees to accept.
- Apart from the punishment for spreading rumors, what else was the government doing?
First of all, starting from February, if I remember well before the first deaths in Iran were reported, the main official message in all news through all national channels was the following: “The coronavirus is not dangerous at all. It is like influenza. The situation is under control.” TV shows would host different experts who would say the same. I remember a few interviews with Dr. Mir Seyedi – she’s a famous media doctor and health expert. She said something like, “No need to panic. The weather is getting warmer, so it will kill the virus. Oh, yeah, I think I had the coronavirus two weeks ago, but now I completely got recovered, and I do not have problems at all.” So people were swallowing such news for two weeks.
All of a sudden, the number of cases has started to increase dramatically, and the government preferred mostly to remain silent for a few weeks. Sometimes the official representatives would appear on national TV and deliver the same “everything-is-under-control-and-don’t-panic” message. But it was a bit late, especially after the video from the press-conference where our deputy health minister, sweating and coughing a lot, was arguing that Iran does not need quarantine because, as he said, it was not a plague or cholera. Ironically, the next day, he confirmed that he self-quarantined as he had contracted coronavirus. (Overall, 23 members of the Iranian parliament, which is about 8% of all MPs tested positive. The parliament has been closed due to fears of the infection spreading – Ed.)
- What is the situation like now? Are the schools closed?
Well, schools and universities have been closed for about two months, I guess. The government has just announced that kids would attend online classes. University students have already been studying online. But there is a big problem with the Internet in Iran – I mean both the quality and its price. For example, I pay around $3.5 for 10 gigabytes, and the speed is very limited. Unlimited packages cost really expensive, around $20-30 (which is approximately one-fourth of the one-month salary – Ed.)
Also, as the ministry of education said, 30% of students do not have access to the Internet. He said that when the schools would re-open, additional days might be added to the school routine.
FROM THE STORYFY: The teachers who work online are supposed to receive 20 gigabytes of free Internet.
- What about cinemas, parks? Have the public events been canceled?
All festivals and sports events are canceled. The cinemas are closed. Police protect the parks. All wedding ceremonies, as well as funerals, are canceled. Night clubs are closed as well. (Alcohol is banned across the country, so drinking and partying are done behind closed doors. There are numerous underground clubs and bars, but they are illegal – Ed.) I heard that rich people arrange private parties, and everyone who is invited should do a coronavirus test beforehand in order to enter the party. I am not sure about the details; it is something that is widely discussed in social media.
- But people are allowed to leave the house when they want, right? Do they need to have a valid reason for that? In Italy and England, for instance, it would be for shopping for food and medicine…
Well, we don’t have quarantine the same way as the other countries do. There has been some news that the government wants to quarantine Tehran (its population is over 15 million people – Ed.) and other big cities, but after they had seen that people started rushing to the shops and empty supermarket shelves, they admitted that they could not do it. (“We have neither the capacity nor the ability to put Tehran under quarantine. We can’t take care of quarantined people,” Tehran’s mayor, Pirouz Hanachi, said. – Ed.)
Instead, they just limited travel outside the cities. So, yeah, millions of people go to work every day by public buses and the metro, but we are not allowed to move between the cities by cars. If you are caught, you may pay $50 fine. Just to make it clear, it’s a lot of money for ordinary Iranians. For example, the average income is around $150-200/month; stocking up with food for one week is about $100; rent of a really tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Tehran outskirts costs from $150.
But again, the way, this travel ban was put into practice, is quite questionable. The thing is that after a few days when it had been implemented, people discovered that there is no one to stop you on the road at night time… Here you go. Some people simply have started to travel at night.
Also, there are some cities in the north that you can’t enter at all (they closed the roads) unless you live in one of them.
- Is there enough food in the shops?
As far as I see, there is no food shortage; you can find pretty much everything you need. The thing is that people do not have money to buy much stuff ahead. You know, how it is covered on national TV? In the news, the officials always say something like, “Look at those people in Europe and America, they cannot find even toilet paper in the shops. Their shop shelves are empty, but ours are full. We control the situation.” Yes, sure, we have enough toilet paper, we just don’t have money to buy it!
The majority of food shops are open. Some of them changed the way they used to work – and started to serve customers through little windows, not allowing anyone in. The other shops began to deliver things, which was not the case before in Iran. In some cities, owners closed their shops even before the government had announced anything – they simply observed what was going on around.
Also, many people started to self-quarantine, again, without any official announcements. I think it was approximately one week before Nowruz, the Persian New Year (20 March). That time the local authorities already closed schools and canceled public activities and were begging people to postpone their travels during the New Year because of the outbreak. To keep people home, they also ordered to close the guesthouses throughout the country.
- Tell us, how was the celebration of Nowruz this year? Did people stay at home?
Well, New Year is always a crazy time in Iran. Everyone rushes to buy stuff; people traditionally travel across the country to see friends and family and celebrate the coming of spring. And this year was not an exception, despite the numerous calls from clerical to army leaders, as well as local authorities to stay at home, and even though some cities, for instance, Isfahan and Shiraz, did not let any guests in. Shortly speaking, around 8 million people ignored all those requests and hit the roads. When they were checked at the entrance of the cities checkpoints, it turned out that 7000 out of them had a fever and showed the other symptoms of coronavirus symptoms.
This year, the government extended holidays from two to three weeks. During that time, people did not have to go to work. Lots of people decided to self-quarantine – at least Tehran streets and shops were half-empty, not as the previous years. It was a week ago. But now, again, as the New Year passed, the streets are filled with people, busses and metro stations are full. People need to go to work; otherwise, they would lose it. In Iran, lots of people live like that – they make a few dollars daily and spend them the same day on food.
FROM THE STORYFY: Governmental statistics on poverty in Iran is quite tricky. For starters, it does not take into account inflation, which has been running extremely high (up to 40% just this year) since the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran. According to the updated data (2018), prices in, let’s say, Tehran suburbs increased by shocking 50%. Currently, even more. Last year, the Parliament’s Research Center reported that 23-40% of Iran’s population will soon be living under the absolute poverty line. (It means – not being able to cover even basic needs for food, water, shelter, and healthcare).
- What’s the situation like with work now? Is there any governmental support?
Many people already lost their jobs, for example, street vendors, taxi drivers, and construction workers. Many businesses closed and did not renew contracts with their employees. The situation is getting worse day by day. So the government decided to re-open some businesses. They divided all businesses on high-risk and low-risk. Although it is not clear about the criteria, they had used. (According to the official information, the high-risk category includes theaters, swimming pools, beauty salons, shopping malls, schools, and restaurants while patisseries, barbershops, and outdoor cafés are classified as low-risk businesses. – Ed.)
While the “high-risk” businesses would be closed, the interesting thing is that an owner of any kind of “low-risk” business needs to get permission in order to re-open. And to get it, you have to sign the paper that you guarantee your workers and customers would not get the coronavirus… Also, whether you want to open a business or simply keep your job – you should sign the same paper. It means when something happens; you are the one who’s going to pay. How do you like it? How can you even promise that? I think in this way the authorities are just trying to avoid responsibility. And people… People find themselves midway between staying at home without money, even for food or going to work but risking their health.
- Are people in extreme poverty supported somehow financially?
Well, the president says they are supported. But… Are they really? You see, one month ago, there was the news that those who lost their jobs will receive some financial support. (According to the official reports, from $12 to $36 for 3 million families – Ed.) None of my friends, for instance, who recently lost their jobs, has gotten anything so far. Then, a week later, another news appeared that the government would give 1 million tomans (or about $70) per member of the household in loans. As it would cause inflation, in my opinion, it is quite questionable help. (There is different information about the mentioned loans in the official media. Some of them state that it is a loan with a 12% interest rate, which will start to be taken back from families’ cash subsidies after six months. Again, it is not clear, but supposedly the government will pay 8% and the borrowers 4%. The other media simply use the phrase “cheap loans.” – Ed.)
FROM THE STORYFY: Iran, as well as world leaders and international organizations, called on Trump administration to ease the sanctions which have isolated the country from the global financial system. Instead, Washington had offered humanitarian aid, which Tehran refused to accept. To fight the outbreak and revive the economy, Iran’s government took an unusual step of requesting a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — the first time in over 50 years. While the EU is ready to help, the important thing is that the US is the primary decision-maker as the Fund’s largest shareholder.
- Has the government revealed any plan or strategy to fight the pandemic? Any?
Any plan. Any kind of systematic action at all! What is going on is complete chaos in the management system. For instance, the president says something like, “Okay, guys, the coronavirus outbreak has almost passed, we are in good condition now. We can come back to work.” Yet, the next day the minister of health compared this decision to playing with fire in an open letter to the president. Or the same minister of health announces that Iran is in deep trouble and needs medical equipment, but a day later, the president says that there is enough medical staff as well as equipment in the hospitals.
(For example, a few weeks ago, the country’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had instructed the Iranian army of which he is the commander-in-chief, to lead in the fight against COVID-19. But just some days later, Khamenei ordered the military to follow instructions from President Hassan Rouhani. – Ed.) Not to mention that the state media is full of interviews with experts whose statements simply contradict.
Who is responsible? No one knows. That’s the problem – people are deeply confused; they don’t know whom to listen to and follow. They don’t know what is right and what is wrong. So basically, you must rely on your own critical thinking and the instinct of self-preservation. That’s it.
There is a lot of fear, confusion, and rumors spreading across social media on top of that contradictory official information, which is shown in the news – take at least the numbers.
- You mean, the number of infected and total deaths?
Yes. In Iran, people are told to go to the hospital or call an ambulance just when they are experiencing real difficulties with breathing. So the number of deaths (nearly 5,000) includes only those people who already could not breathe. But how many died at home because they did not have a chance to go to the hospital, thus they are not listed in statistics?
Also, there are plenty of videos on social media where Iranian doctors say that the number of people dying from the breathing problems is overwhelming, but they are not tested for coronavirus, so they are out of official figures as well. Also, the doctors say that those bodies are not given to their families but buried together with the people who died from the coronavirus.
If you want to check yourself just in case and buy the test, it would cost $80-100 in a few private clinics. Imagine. So, again, only rich people can afford it.
At the same time, our president says that we have already passed the peak of the disease, and the number of infected is going down. I hope so because a week ago people came back to work after Nowruz. As I told you, the public transport is packed. And no one knows what is going to happen tomorrow.
FROM THE STORYFY: One month ago, the representatives of the World Health Organization said that the reported number of infected and deaths in Iran could represent only about 20% of real number – due to low testing ability. So far, 300,000 Iranians or about 0,36% of the population have been tested.
Do you know what is interesting? Even if the government does something, it often contradicts logic and common sense. They are falsely pretending to do something, and in reality, no help or real assistance is provided.
- For example?
Look, the government promised to build a 2,000-bed field hospital in an exhibition center in Tehran within 48 hours. They did it. But when they showed it, people were a bit shocked. Basically, it is a huge space (like a stadium) filled with 2000 beds very close to each other. I mean, it is the pandemic, and people, on the contrary, should maintain distance. There is no privacy, no personal sockets, no bathrooms, and no medical equipment – just the long rows of beds with chairs squeezed between them. You know, this situation perfectly reflects how the fight against coronavirus happens in Iran – very often, it is a fight against common sense.
FROM THE STORYFY: Three Iranian ministries – health, interior, and foreign affairs – had invited MSF doctors (Doctors Without Borders) to help deal with the virus, particularly, to build a hospital in Isfahan city. But the president Khamenei turned down the help when a nine-person humanitarian team had already arrived in Isfahan, insisting that the US government created the virus specifically for Iranian genes.
Or listen to this. Every day, on national TV channels, there is a ton of stories when the reporter visits people who are self-quarantined. So he goes from the house to house and asks people how they feel and if they need anything. He does not even wear a mask. Who is this show made for? Isn’t it silly?
- How have the religious authorities handled this crisis?
Well, in religious cities, there has been some propaganda on the grow which proclaims something like, “If you believe in God, nothing will happen to you.”
Another thing is that while people have been living in confusion, there are some religious leaders (we call them mullah) and self-proclaimed doctors who promote their fake remedies all over social media, claiming that they can either prevent the coronavirus from entering the body or cure an infected person. One of them (Abbas Tabrizian, who presents himself as “the father of Islamic medicine” – Ed.) is quite known among his supporters in Qom city. He has been selling online the oil from violet flowers as “a cure against the coronavirus.”
- Whoa… And how do people react to this “virus cure”?
In two different ways. While social media exploded with the jokes and memes about that flower oil cure, which is advised to use, I am sorry, as a suppository before going to sleep, there are still lots of people who believe in it and buy it. The official reaction is different and varies from case to case: while the minister of health warns people to stay away from charlatans, some Islamic doctors’ statements are simply ignored. (Interesting that according to official information, three doctors who earlier criticized Tabrizian’s actions on social media were each condemned to a suspended sentence of 60 lashes for “insults” – Ed.) But, for instance, another Islamic doctor is wanted by police.
- What did he do?
This story is worthy of adaptation. Another man, a cleric, who proclaimed himself Islamic medicine doctor, posted a video on social media where he somehow had entered the hospital sick with COVID-19 in Anzali city (northern Iran). He did not wear any protection, mask, or gloves. He asked permission a few patients to treat them with “Perfume of the Prophet.” Then he had removed the mask from one young man and rubbed the perfume under his nose. He said that it would make him sneeze and heal from the virus.
Two days later, this young man died. For two weeks, the police could not catch him as he would move from one city to another one changing buses and planes. After two weeks, he again shared the video where he said he knew that police were looking for him but decided to self-quarantine in case he could bring the virus to the court.
FROM THE STORYFY: While most social media users make a lot of jokes and memes about the “miraculous oil” and alcohol as a coronavirus cure, there are still people who pay the highest price for their mistaken belief. More than 600 people have died after drinking neat alcohol, while 3,000 are in the hospital. Interesting that to make disinfectors, the authorities re-opened the Shams alcohol factory – the first time after the Islamic revolution.
- There was news that Iran released a lot of prisoners…
Yes. It has happened just before the New Year. The government pardoned 10,000 prisoners (including some charged with political crimes – Ed.). Eighty-five thousand prisoners (who were sentenced for less than five years) are allowed to come back to their families for two months because the authorities could not provide medical facilities to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Mostly, these are people who went to prison because of debts, or violators of the road rules, who, for example, could not cover the treatment of those injured in the accident.
- Reza, has the people’s behavior changed somehow during the last two months? Have they become, let’s say, more aware?
People who have access to the Internet and follow news on satellite channels see what is going on in the world. But there are also lots of people who watch just state TV which mostly broadcasts some religious programs and talent shows.
Every night, at 9.30 p.m., the news program delivers messages from the government. Its something like – if you have this problem, go to that website, if you have that problem, go to that website. That’s it.
- Do people wear masks?
Yes, people mostly do wear masks and gloves, at least in the cities. The problem is that many people think that just the presence of masks and gloves somehow will fix the things and protect them from the virus. I see many people putting on masks only to cover mouth, for instance, or the guy wearing gloves and lightning his cigarette and right after touching his face… The main reason, I’d say, to wear a mask is because others use it.
People also have started to wash their hands frequently. And the government already announced that we would experience water shortage because people use 50% more water than in the hottest summer days last year. So they ask people, “Okay, guys, please wash your hands for 20 seconds and then please close the tap and do not waste water.”
- What do Iranians do while in self-quarantine at home?
I’d say, people try to stay positive and keep themselves busy. One of the activities is making funny home-video and sending it to satellite TV channels, which would pick the funniest ones and broadcast it.
What else? People started to make their own bread. It is interesting. Bread is a staple food for Iranian families. So instead of buying it in the streets, families bake it and post the videos of the process in social media.
Also, people have been buying lots of audiobooks as they have time for reading and studying. I know it because I am a web designer and work for a company that sells audiobooks. During these months, they have been selling that amount of tracks as for two years.
I, myself, since I have been on self-quarantine, have been working for a few hours a day, then playing setar (traditional Iranian instrument), after that practicing languages, watching TV and playing computer games. This is it. I do not know what will be in the nearest months like in Iran – as you see, we are struggling to make sense out of today’s reality. Let’s see.
- World Health Organization:
- Google Coronavirus Website (state-based information, safety and prevention tips, search trends related to COVID-19, and further resources for individuals, educators, and businesses)
- Wiley Online Library (Coronavirus resources and news)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Worldometer (statistics on coronavirus constantly updated)