Iran’s Double Emergency. Fighting the Virus, Under International Sanctions
Marina Forti 17 March 2020

It will indeed be a strange Nowrooz in Iran. For the first time in decades, the Persian New Year starting on March 20 will not see the public celebrations nor the exchange of gifts and visits between neighbors that usually mark the most important holiday of the year. Travel and holidays are canceled, Iranians are mostly locked indoors. The country is in a full health emergency for the new coronavirus Covid-19.

With almost 15 thousand cases of infection and 853 dead (as of March 16, according to official data), Iran is one of the world’s hotspots of the pandemic, the second most impacted country after Italy, outside of China. Many are convinced that the official data is underestimated, both by deliberate choice and because of the difficulty of conducting systematic tests, and that the real situation is much more serious. But even if we believe the daily bulletin from the Ministry of Health, the picture is alarming: with over a thousand new infections declared every twenty-four hours and dozens of deaths per day, it is clear that the contagion is growing fast. On March 12, the health Minister Saeed Namaki told the National Security Council that Iran is still far from “peak” contagion and that the rate of deaths is likely to continue to increase until mid-April.

On Friday, March 13, Iran’s Chief of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major-General Mohammad Baqeri, announced that the army will ensure that the streets remain empty: “In the next 24 hours shops, streets and highways will be cleared by national decision” to contain the spread of the virus. No city has been formally isolated, no “red zone” declared, but on the roads leaving the capital, Tehran, agents now check the body temperature to prevent travel of any sick people. This is the most drastic measure announced so far in the fight against the Covid-19 epidemic.


Fatal delay

Too little, too late? Many in Iran have criticized the authorities for reacting slowly. Only a few weeks ago, Iranian leaders were minimizing the threat. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called it the “so-called virus”. Some had gone so far as to call it a “Western plot” to isolate the Islamic Republic. The moderate president of the republic Hassan Rohani, even as he ordered the closure of all schools on 23 February in advance of the Nowrooz holidays, at the same time suggested that the situation would normalize in a few days. On the contrary, the country stopped, little by little; Friday prayers were suspended, cinemas, theatres and public places closed. Last week Ayatollah Khamenei himself also had to cancel his Nowrooz’s speech, which he usually delivers in Mashhad, Iran’s third largest city and the home of an important Shiite mausoleum. According to the statement released by the Leader’s office on March 9, the decision was taken “due to the spread of the coronavirus, following the recommendation of health officials … to avoid travel and gatherings”.

The new virus has taken the whole world by surprise, and Iran is no exception. Here, however, the new crisis has hit an already isolated country. The epidemic has put a strain on an economy already hit by recession and sanctions and a health system already under stress, not least because of the difficulty of importing equipment and medicines. It has exacerbated the deep distrust that has already spread among the Iranians, after months of internal and external crises.

The first news of Covid-19 in Iran dates back to February 19, when the death of two people was announced in Qom, a city of over a million inhabitants south of Tehran. It is reasonable to think that the virus had already been circulating for some time. Iran has close contacts with China; many Iranians go there on business and hundreds of Chinese technicians work in Iran. The first victim was in fact an Iranian businessman who had recently returned from Wuhan in China, where the coronavirus first emerged; the second victim was apparently a doctor. A few days later, on February 24, the Ministry of Health admitted several dozen cases and 12 deaths. That same day, a member of parliament elected in Qom told a news agency that there were in fact more than 50 dead; he was bitterly contradicted by deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi (who was found to be infected two days later). The warning signs were nonetheless visible; in those very days, the Iranian press published photos of freshly dug-out burial rows in the Behesht-e Masoumeh cemetery in Qom, a sign that the authorities were preparing for the worst. And the worst came.

The virus spread rapidly. Qom is the seat of the major theological schools of Shiite Islam, where thousands of students arrive from all over the country and the world. It is also very frequented by political and religious leaders who go back and forth with neighboring Tehran: perhaps this explains why among the first cases of infection recorded in Tehran there were many members of parliament, along with senior officials, the vice-president of the republic Massumeh Ebtekhar, the vice-minister of health, one of the Supreme Leader’s closest advisors. Another of his top advisors, Mohammad Mirmohammadi, is among the first recorded deaths in Tehran.

Had Qom been immediately isolated, many observed, perhaps it would have been possible to contain the spread of the virus. It is widely believed that the political establishment did not want to declare a health emergency in order not to cause alarm on the eve of parliamentary elections. In fact, on February 21 Iran voted to renew the parliament and it was widely expected that voter turnout would be low, after months of internal and external crises: the repression of the November protests, the escalating tension with the United States and the killing of General Soleimani, and the disconcerting episode of the Ukrainian plane that was erroneously shot down. Certainly, the exclusion of almost all reformist candidates did not stimulate participation – with or without coronavirus. So the new legislature, dominated by the ultra-conservatives, was elected with the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic: only 42% of eligible voters cast their ballot, and only 25% in Tehran (previous parliamentary elections had seen affluence of 61% and the 2017 presidential elections had reached 73%).


Extreme ills, extreme remedies

The truth is that only on March 5, two weeks after the first death in Qom, the Iranian government declared a “national mobilization” to fight the coronavirus. The health Minister Saeed Namaki announced that 300,000 healthcare workers would be dispatched to strengthen health centers and open new clinics in suburbs and villages. The Guards of the Revolution begun to intervene with staff and field hospitals. Iranians received the recommendations we all have become familiar with: wash hands, avoid crowded places, give up travel, self-isolate in case of symptoms, and so on. Masks and disinfectants quickly disappeared from shops (a familiar scene everywhere). The police reported cases of hoarding and discovered warehouses full of disinfectants and medical supplies, ready to be resold at higher prices. On March 9, the powerful head of the judiciary, Chief Prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi, announced the release of 70,000 “non-socially dangerous” prisoners, whose sentences were suspended in order to alleviate the risk of contagion in prisons (needless to say that among them there are no political prisoners, noted Human Rights Watch).

No city, however, has been isolated: people have only been advised not to travel. The highest number of contagions is counted in Tehran (about 15 million inhabitants, if satellite cities are included), but the virus has reached all the provinces of the country. Cases are increasing particularly in the provinces of Gilan and Madanzaran in the north. In fact, many people from the capital thought to take advantage of the school closures and the upcoming holidays to reach the Caspian Sea resorts, where many wealthy Tehranis have second homes. When the northern provinces decided to block arrivals, cases of tension were reported at checkpoints.

On March 9, the head of the country’s committee to combat the coronavirus noted that social activities had not declined as expected, and the spread of the virus didn’t seem to slow. Many local administrators are in fact calling for more drastic blockades. That same day, a number of parliamentarians posted on Twitter an appeal to put Tehran and Qom under mandatory quarantine and to mobilize the powerful Revolutionary Foundations – that of the Mostazafin (the “disinherited”), the Imam Khomeini Foundation and others – to procure and distribute much needed medical supplies. Perhaps the highest in rank among the critical voices was that of the Vice-Speaker of Parliament, the reformer Masoud Pezeshkian, a trained physician and former head of the Ministry of Health: he expressed doubts about official statistics and criticized the government for not promptly isolating Qom and Tehran.

Much criticized for his scarce presence on the public scene, president Hassan Rohani went public in the last few days to urge citizens to “take the coronavirus threat seriously”. On March 15, he reassured Iranians that there would be no shortages of medical supplies or food, and again ruled out any quarantine: economic activities should continue, he insisted, although a series of health protocols must be observed.


Under pressure

Slowly the Iranians began to change their behavior. Evening life stopped, cultural and sport activities were suspended. Many started to work remotely, others anticipated their holidays; many offices closed for Nowrooz. Public services, however, continue to function and food shops and pharmacies remain open and there is no report of any particular rush to stock up. Other shops also remain open but are mostly empty and desolate: in Tehran and elsewhere there is no trace of the shopping frenzy that usually precedes Nowrooz, comparable to the weeks before Christmas in European countries. Rather, online sales are expanding, which are already widespread especially in large cities.

Now social media is full of appeals to stay at home and calls for solidarity. Well-known actors share short videos to cheer up their fellow citizens. Some share audiobooks; musicians put their songs on Instagram.

But there is also the more fragile part of society, the large area of manual and precarious workers, those who fear losing their jobs and wages. “Many know that if they miss even one day of work,   they don’t bring food home”, one witness pointed out. “The economic crisis in the last year or two has increased poverty in the country. And now, these are the people who can’t afford to stay at home.” Iran has a public subsidy system, and president Rohani announced measures to support workers and businesses. A few days ago Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri ordered special support for women who heads of households to help deal with the emergency. But many are relying on charity: Iran has a strong tradition of volunteering and charities, “and these are the ones that are now helping the poorest as much as possible,” our witness notes.

Meanwhile, reports continue to circulate on how health services are under stress. A team of experts from the World Health Organization recently concluded a support mission in Iran on Covid-19, praising the measures taken so far to contain and trace the contagion but also called for more to be done, “Like every affected country worldwide, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s health system is being significantly challenged by the outbreak”.

Iran has one of the best health services in the region, with a network of decentralized facilities and excellent medical and paramedical staff, including many who specialized abroad. But it has just enough beds per inhabitant in normal times, and now the hospitals are overflowing. Not only that, it suffers a chronic shortage of equipment and drugs, mainly because of the unilateral sanctions applied by the United States: even if in theory these do not concern health care equipment, this sector is also affected because the exclusion of Iranian banks from the global banking system blocks normal payment channels. On February 27th, the Swiss government launched a financial mechanism to allow the Iranian purchase of medicines, food and “humanitarian” supplies, but it has yet to take off. “Iran is the only country that is fighting the epidemic under sanctions,” President Rohani repeated in these days.

Tehran has asked the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan of $5 billion dollars, drawing on the $50 billion emergency fund announced by the IMF precisely to assist member countries in the fight against the coronavirus. In a March 12 letter addressed to the IMF Director, Ms. Kristalina Giorgieva, the Governor of the Central Bank of Iran cited the “widespread prevalence” of the virus and the need for urgent measures to limit the spread, treat patients, and mitigate the economic impact of the epidemic (the Iranian request will be examined by the Board of Directors of the Fund, in which the United States has a decisive influence: the outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion).

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also appealed to the United Nations for medical assistance: in a Twitter post, he published a list of material Iran urgently needs, from breathing equipment to coronavirus test kits, masks and anti-viral drugs. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Zarif also calls for US sanctions to be lifted to allow the country to fight the disease.

Finally, there is the attempt to control the narrative of the epidemic. Attorney General Raisi announced that the only news on the epidemic is published by the National Committee for the Fight Against the Coronavirus, and spreading “alarmist” comments would be considered an “act against national security”: that is, will be punishable by arrest (the Center for Human Rights in Iran has already denounced a number of arrests over social media posts on Covid-19).

However, witnesses from Iranian hospitals continue to report that doctors and paramedics work in stressful conditions, often even without protective clothing and gloves simply because there are not enough. The Leader’s office announced last week that doctors and nurses who died fighting the epidemic will be declared “martyrs”, a highly symbolic recognition – but also a practical one because it allows family members to obtain compensation and pensions. Sarcastic replies have nevertheless circulated on social media, “give us gloves instead of calling us martyrs”.

Other messages from Iranian hospitals are addressed to citizens and colleagues likes when videos (here or here) were circulated, showing medical staff dancing in the corridors: with protective overalls, gowns and masks that not only protect against the virus but also conceal the identity of the protagonists of these attempts to maintain good humor in an unforgiving fight.



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