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How Did Iran’s Religious Center Become the Country’s Coronavirus Epicenter?

February 25, 2020
Parvaneh Masoumi
7 min read
“The medical team is helpless because it lacks special equipment and supplies, nor have they received necessary training to protect themselves,” one source told IranWire
“The medical team is helpless because it lacks special equipment and supplies, nor have they received necessary training to protect themselves,” one source told IranWire

The head of Behesht-e Masoumeh Cemetery in Qom announced on Monday, February 24, that the bodies of people who had died from the coronavirus had been buried according to religious and sanitary requirements. As he made his announcement, he also raised questions about how effectively the coronavirus crisis is being handled in Qom and in Iran in general.

On December 4, 2019, when Abdolhamid Vakili, CEO of Behesht-e Masoumeh Cemetery in Qom, reported the start of a project to prepare 2,000 graves in the “crisis plot” of the cemetery, nobody could have imagined that a crisis was indeed on its way [Persian link]. It’s not known what crisis Vakili was anticipating, but for some reason he and city officials planned to expand the cemetery’s “crisis plot.”

“The bodies of the fatalities due to diseases such as coronavirus are buried in Behesht-e Masoumeh Cemetery according to sanitary and religious requirements and this process also applies to accepting or rejecting bodies from other provinces and cities,” Vakili said [Persian link]. He did not explain, and nobody asked him, about bodies from “other provinces and cities” that Qom might reject. He only added that the “special fleet” that deals with these bodies must take the necessary sanitary precautions required for handling infectious diseases.

Such a pronouncement about a “special fleet” cannot possibly relate to the death of only a few people, which is what Iranian official media has reported.The reality will be closer to the claim by Ahmad Amirabadi, member of parliament from Qom, who said on February 23 that the number of fatalities had reached 50 and that an average of 10 people had died in Qom each day since the outbreak.


News from Inside a Qom Hospital

Over the last few days, Qom’s Kamkar Hospital has become familiar to anybody who has been following the news of the coronavirus epidemic. IranWire contacted a reliable source inside the hospital, who supplied two pieces of news:

1. Four people have died at Kamkar Hospital each day but the deaths are not limited to this hospital. On February 24, one person died from coronavirus at Golpayegani Hospital.

2. Kamkar and Forghani hospitals first admitted patients suspected of coronavirus, but now all hospitals admit these patients because Kamkar Hospital’s capacity has been exhausted and it is unable to take in any new patients.


How are Medical Teams Doing?

“The medical team is really helpless because it lacks special equipment and supplies, nor have they received necessary training to protect themselves,” the source IranWire spoke to said. “It uses the same supplies, like masks and disinfectants, as ordinary people do. The medical staff is extremely worried that they could carry the virus home with thems. They and the hospital staff have been overwhelmed by the fear of getting infected and by their inability to deal with the volume of the visits, especially since a number of doctors and nurses have been infected by coronavirus right before our own eyes and have been put to bed at the hospital.”

The source IranWire spoke to said in some cities medical laboratories have refused to see patients who have high fevers and show symptoms of possible infection because the team required to conduct the tests is not equipped with insulated outfits and other necessities.

It is not particularly surprising that Qom’s hospitals have exceeded their capacity because the city has always suffered from a shortage of doctors and hospital beds. There are only 40 doctors in Qom for each 100,000 residents and Qom province ranks 30th among 31 Iranian provinces when it comes to this category. There are only 184 hospital beds for each 100,000 residents and Qom ranks 17th among other provinces — the bottom half — in this regard.

According to figures published by the Statistical Center of Iran, the total number of hospital beds in Qom province amounts to 2,392. Naturally, not all these hospital beds can be given to coronavirus patients because pregnant women, cancer patients, children, the elderly, emergency patients, injured victims of traffic accidents still require hospitalization.


How Did Coronavirus Arrive in Iran? 

Health Minister Saeed Namaki claims that Chinese workers brought coronavirus to Qom. He also said that a merchant from Qom who had taken an indirect flight from China has tested positive for coronavirus. But people in Qom do not believe such claims because they say they have never seen Chinese workers in the city. However, sources tell IranWire that a number of Chinese engineers work for the Qom’s metro company, though they are not workers directly involved with metro stations or trains. There are only a few and they have escaped notice easily.

In addition to the metro project, a number of Chinese people used to work in Qom for the Tehran-Isfahan express railway project but they left the city four months ago to continue their work nearer to Isfahan.

In the Salafchegan Special Economic Zone near Qom there are a few Chinese-owned factories that produce leather, briefcases, blankets, and other items. These factories are owned and managed by Chinese people but their workers are native to Iran.

It is not that the people of Qom are unfamiliar with Chinese people, but the Chinese people they have met are usually seminary students, not workers or engineers. Qom citizens told IranWire that the best way to get information about Chinese seminary students was to ask Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and his Imam Khomeini Institute, as well as the Friday Imam Alireza Arafi and the Al-Mustafa International University, which he oversees. Most Chinese seminary students reside in the Zanbil Abad neighborhood of Qom and live and study as other seminary students do.

The presence of Chinese students at Qom seminaries is substantial, and works both ways. Besides teaching foreign students, Al-Mustafa International University also sends missionaries to other countries, including China, both to proselytize for Islam and to attract seminary students. In other words, foreign seminary students are not in Qom by chance or by whim, they have been brought in by extensive proselytizing by missionaries who had been active in their native countries.

Teaching Chinese to seminary students and sending them to China as missionaries started in Qom in 2014 and still continues [Persian link]. However, Qom was preceded by Isfahan and other seminary cities in this activity.

Cultural exchange between Qom’s seminary and China’s Islamic Society and Chinese Muslim figures has also played a role in bringing the Chinese to this Shia holy city [Persian link].


A Qom History of Chinese Residents

Qom is a metropolitan area with a population of close to 1.4 million people. Usually the streets of city, especially Eram, Chahar Mardan, Amin Boulevard, Safa’ieh and Bajak, are marked by heavy traffic. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, they seem abandoned. Fearing the virus, most people are staying home although there are many who have no choice but to go to work to alleviate hunger and out of a need to just earn money for their families.

The doors to mosques are still open and the lines are long to participate in collective prayers, though they are dwindling. It is still possible to see many Pakistani and Indian pilgrims around Eram Street and the Masoumeh Shrine; many religious sites still have visitors.

According to a number of Qom residents, “masks and disinfectants are in short supply and businesses have closed down. Even if they reopen the schools we will not allow our children to go to school before the Norooz holidays [for the Iranian new year, which starts on March 20]. Many in the city ignore hygiene, and it is so bad that you don’t dare to buy fruits from vendors or to go to the bakery. What has also contributed to the spread of coronavirus in the city is its proximity to Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran. Many airport cabdrivers live in Qom.”

Everybody hopes that spring will bring them good weather and a sweet piece of good news, something along the lines of: “Coronavirus patients have been treated and have been discharged from the hospital.”


Related Coverage:

Quarantine or Public Prayers? That is the Question in Iran, 25 February 2020

Iran's Deputy Health Minister has Contracted Coronavirus, 25 February 2020

Reports of Coronavirus in Three Iranian Prisons, 25 February 2020

50 Coronavirus Deaths in Iran’s Clerical Center, 24 February 2020

Students Call for University Closure Until Norooz, 24 February 2020

Iranian Medical Professionals Confess They Are not Prepared to Handle Coronavirus, 24 February 2020

Iran Suspends All Sports Events Fearing Spread of Coronavirus, 24 February 2020

Coronavirus Brings Iran to a Halt, 23 February 2020




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