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How COVID-19 turned into major health crisis in Iran

Many people disregarded advisories to stay home at early stage, authorities unwilling to enforce total lockdown

Syed Zafar Mehdi   | 02.04.2020
 How COVID-19 turned into major health crisis in Iran

TEHRAN 

On Feb. 21, two days after the first two cases of the cataclysmic COVID-19 were reported in Iran’s Qom city, I got a call from a friend in that city.

He was planning his maiden trip to India during the New Year holiday and asked for my advices to finalize his itinerary.

“How is the situation in Qom, I heard about some virus outbreak there,” I asked him. He appeared dismissive, saying it was a “common influenza” and there was no reason to press the panic button.

Qom, a popular religious tourism destination some 100 miles south of the capital Tehran, is where the virus emerged in Iran on Feb. 19.

The city reported the first positive cases and two deaths related to COVID-19, before the epicenter of the disease shifted to Tehran.

My friend’s nonchalant remark about what was to snowball into a devastating health crisis wasn’t without a reason. In the initial days of its outbreak in Iran, the mood in the country was upbeat.

The statements issued by the government officials seemed to suggest that things were under control.

The positive approach always helps, but the defensive approach is not always right. In such crisis situations, it helps to adopt a tough, offensive, aggressive approach, just like in a war.

The COVID-19 outbreak in Iran coincided with the much-anticipated parliamentary elections.

If authorities had sounded alarm bells on time, perhaps the voter turnout could have been affected, some would argue. The elections went on smoothly and it was a clean sweep for the conservatives.

It would be exaggeration to blame elections for the spread of the disease, but the authorities could have focused more on the imminent health crisis.

After the elections, as numbers, quite frighteningly, started to pile up, Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi appeared before cameras for a briefing, flanked by a government spokesperson.

He had an important message for the people – “don’t panic, corona will be defeated.”

The next day, he tested positive and subsequently shifted to quarantine. He has recovered since and is back at work.

The authorities were clearly taken aback by the extent and severity of the crisis that engulfed different parts of the country within days.

The worldwide fatality rate from coronavirus being less than 2%, it was shocking for many pundits to note the fatality rate in Iran well above 4% in the beginning, which later markedly dropped down as the new infected cases surged.


Coronavirus emerges as real threat for Iran

From single digit figure to double digit and eventually triple digit, the alarming surge in infections was clearly felt when dozens of Iranian lawmakers tested positive, a sign that the crisis was real and everyone was equally vulnerable.

Among the political bigwigs who tested positive included Iran’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.

Both have recovered now, however, three other officials succumbed to the disease. A newly elected lawmaker from Tehran, a former diplomat from Qom along with a senior advisor to the foreign minister from Tehran.

Hospitals were flooded by patients, those who were positive and were suspected to be positive.

Many doctors and nurses died in the line of duty, hailed as “martyrs”. It seemed the country’s healthcare system would be overwhelmed by the massive crisis.

How the pandemic reached and spread in Iran is still shrouded in mystery. It originated in China where thousands of cases were reported in January and February.

There are reports that the flights between Tehran and Beijing continued unchecked even at the peak of crisis in China.

However, reports also suggested that the first two cases of COVID-19 in Qom had no travel history. We may never know the roots of its origin in Iran.

The late response by the authorities in Iran was further complicated by their reluctance to enforce strict lockdown in major cities hit by the virus. Hence, people failed to come to terms with the gravity of the situation even as the highly contagious virus silently made inroads into their homes, bodies and lives.

A week before the Iranian New Year starting on March 21, when people normally went on a shopping spree and traveled to different cities, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree ordering the armed forces to swing into action and enforce lockdown in Tehran and other cities.

It was believed that only the armed forces could handle the crisis and prevent public gatherings, since health experts around the world urged “social distancing” as a measure to prevent its outbreak.

Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff for armed forces, soon issued orders to empty streets, roads and stores within 24 hours. Before the order could be executed, the civilian authorities opposed it.

President Hassan Rouhani made it emphatically clear that no lockdown will be enforced before, during or after the New Year.

Tehran’s mayor Pirouz Hanachi also rejected the idea of quarantining the capital city, saying the government cannot provide financial means to people or compensate businesses due to economic pressure by the U.S. sanctions.


Advisories fail to contain virus’ spread

In China, they managed to significantly contain the outbreak owing to strict measures. In Italy, as the fatalities surged, authorities announced a crackdown on outings.

In South Korea, the government response was timely and people adhered to health advisories.

In India, as soon as initial cases were reported, many cities were put under the lockdown. Prevention is better than cure and regret.

In days leading up to the Iranian New Year, tens of thousands reportedly traveled to different parts of the country, some to their hometowns, some others to spend holidays in idyllic hill resorts.

Despite the health advisories to stay home and cancel travel plans, many people went ahead with their plans.

On the eve of the New Year, some markets in Tehran were packed with shoppers. It shows why law enforcement isn’t always possible through mere “advisories,” but requires government action.

Some days ago, as the daily COVID-19 figures touched a new high in Iran, government announced complete ban on inter-city travel, something they could have done before the New Year holiday.

However, there were reports that the Tehran-Qom highway was again opened for traffic a day after the announcement, which shows the inability to enforce lockdown.

The opinion is clearly divided in Iran today. There is a segment of people that supports the government decision not to impose total lockdown and there is a segment that believes the lockdown should have been imposed weeks before.

Iran’s judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, a strong conservative political figure, is among those who believe the lockdown should have been enforced before the New Year holidays.

The no-holds-barred fight against the pandemic meanwhile is going on in hospitals across the country with the brave army of doctors and nurses serving on the frontline.

Even with lack of resources and at great personal risk, they have been doing an exemplary job in saving precious lives.

The U.S. economic sanctions on Iran have unarguably made this fight a difficult one and perhaps longer too.

The shortage of medicine and equipment to treat COVID-19 patients is severely impeding the efforts to overcome this simmering crisis.

It is also one of the reasons that authorities are unwilling to enforce total lockdown.

Both President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have emphasized it repeatedly over the past few weeks, writing letters to world leaders to use their good offices in prompting the Trump administration to ease sanctions.

Even U.S. President Donald Trump’s predecessors George Bush and Barack Obama had eased sanctions on Iran during their tenures when Iran was hit by earthquake.

While it is important for the U.S. government to understand that they are complicit in this evolving humanitarian crisis in Iran through the illegal embargo, to quote one Iranian academic “by weaponizing the COVID-19,” it is also necessary that the Iranian government looks at ways to defeat the virus despite the U.S. sanctions -- by imposing strict lockdown and taking tough “social distancing” measures.

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