It is by now clear that the Iranian authorities have catastrophically mismanaged the coronavirus outbreak.
Compare their half-baked attempts to the uncompromising (some might say inhumane) rigor of China’s reaction to COVID-19.
In Wuhan, people were locked in their apartments. Some buildings in badly affected areas had special locks fitted to register the comings and goings of residents. Anyone who went out more than three times a week was arrested and forcibly quarantined.
China efficiently erected multiple 1,000-bed prefabricated hospitals to accommodate the surge in patients. (And it just as efficiently dismantled them once the outbreak tailed off.)
It’s the same kind of ruthless efficiency that has built “re-education” camps for millions of ethnic Uighurs in western China.
Here in Iran, it took our authorities more than two weeks to even start closing down universities, cinemas and – eventually – even Friday prayers.
Then there was that highly embarrassing press conference during which a pale and sweating Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, downplayed the threat of COVID-19 and assured people there was no need for a mass quarantine. A short time later he took to social media to admit he had caught the virus.
After that, the Health Minister himself finally swung into action and implored Iranians to stay home. But the official approach has been a mishmash. No surprise. (There are of course endless social media posts documenting the mess and the contradictions.) For example, Iranian police have closed the roads leading to hard-hit northern cities – but the governorate of Mazandaran province ordered them opened again. (See my previous blog on official incoherence for more.)
We now know that Qom was the original epicentre of the disease – yet the religious authorities there initially refused to close or restrict access to holy sites. The Shrine of Masoumeh, far from protecting pilgrims from COVID-19, instead exposed them. They became new vectors carrying the virus far and wide to towns and villages across the country. Now Iran’s religious poor are trapped in often overcrowded apartments, worried, and with no access to information they can trust.
The middle classes and the wealthy have no such problems. When the virus began to spread, they simply jumped in their cars and drove to their villas. Tehranis headed north to Gilan and Mazandaran. People in Shiraz, Isfahan and Tabriz headed to their own nearby countryside to sit out the crisis in space and comfort. (Seemy blog on the Iranian rich and their reflexive escapism.)
It’s depressing. Quarantine at home for these people – many of whom are highly educated and capable - could have been a time of reflection and community participation. With their contacts and their money, they might have pitched in to ease the plight of those less fortunate. And to at least reflect on the conditions that got us into this crisis and what we need to do to get out of it.
I’ve been re-reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It’s a classic tribute to hope during the Holocaust.
Frankl wrote: “Do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?
For Frankl, the answer was clear.
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples often of a heroic nature , which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind , even in such terrible conditions.”
I fear there are millions of Iranians who have not grasped this, or who aren’t capable of spiritual freedom and independence of mind. They don’t read, and have neither an interesting inner life nor a role in any vital community. For such people, enforced isolation is too much to bear; as much of a hardship as a solitary sentence in Evin Prison.
We all hope that, like the Chinese, Iran gets this outbreak under control fast. But unlike the Chinese, we have to contend with selfish hordes who have fled for the hills, the lying incompetence of the theocracy and with our overstretched and ill-equipped medical system.
It’s going to be a long, bleak spring.
Happy Norooz everyone.