In the absence of government action, Iran’s civil society groups have been educating and informing communities about the coronavirus pandemic, creating an effective network of local activists who are taking steps to protect their cities, towns and neighborhoods.
The Iranian government officially and publicly announced that coronavirus was spreading in Iran at the beginning of March. According to officials, the first people infected with the coronavirus were two citizens of Qom — an announcement that coincided with the deaths of the two men. According to experts, coronavirus can incubate in the body of infected people for almost two weeks, so given how long the two people who died in Qom had been experiencing symptoms, it is likely that the coronavirus had reached the country about a month before the official announcement in Iran.
Experts have noted that the Islamic Republic's slow response to the coronavirus outbreak and its failure to inform the Iranian people have played a significant role in turning Iran into one of the 10 worst-affected countries suffering from coronavirus in the world. The country’s rulers have faced harsh criticism for not being transparent about the number of cases, and about their poor management of the crisis.
Iran's Ministry of Health announced on Monday, April 6, that the number of people infected with the coronavirus in the country had reached 60,500, and that 3,739 people had died as a result of the virus.
So how has civil society in and outside Iran reacted to this crisis?
Groups have highlighted the severe shortage of hospital beds, medical and sanitary facilities, masks and gloves, both in medical centers and among the public, as well as ventilators in hospitals, as being among the government's worst failings. Civil society organizations have also spoken out against the government's resistance to the idea of quarantining cities and provinces, its failure to restrict travel early on, and the failure to close government and non-government offices and factories.
Non-governmental organizations and well-known personalities in and outside the country have also played a significant role in collecting donations to compensate for the shortage of sanitary facilities.
So far, the Nafas [breath] Campaign, a group of activists from Iran’s private sector advocating for economic reform, along with Aid from Health Donors, a group of health civil society organizations, have collected several tons of masks and gloves, artificial respiration devices, and other medical equipment for families and hospitals.
“We Couldn’t Stay Quiet”: The Kurdistan Province Model
In Kurdistan province, civil society organizations and volunteers have provided medical equipment and goods and worked to quarantine cities on a voluntary basis as much as possible. The Green Chia Association, an environmental activism group, took the initiative to disinfect public spaces in the province’s villages and towns, as did the People's Committee of Neighborhoods Against Coronavirus in the Kurdistan city of Marivan.
In addition to coordinating preventative action to stop the spread of the virus, the Marivan group also speaks out against the authorities’ failure to supply adequate protective equipment and clothing.
"The government is not able or does not wish to carry out its duties," labor activist Azad Khanchehzar told IranWire. ”Silence was not an option for us. It really wasn't a way to go, it wasn't a way to deal with it. The initial idea was sparked by a conversation with an old friend, Sarkan Yousefi. We couldn't stay quiet. We thought we shouldn't be idle and we should do something. This conversation and idea became a public call for the formation of popular committees in neighborhoods to deal with the crisis, including a call-out online.”
The group, which posted its updates and actions on Telegram, hoped that the popular movement would garner support from provincial officials: "We already knew that popular committees alone could not control the virus. As a result, we thought, and expected, that the intervention and voluntary action from the people would be welcomed by the governor and the city council and health officials. Unfortunately, this did not happen.”
Khanchehzar also said they hoped educating the public about the dangers of the virus and how to take precautions would prompt government officials to take the issue seriously and formally declare a quarantine. "Although an official quarantine has never been announced, government agencies controlling traffic and closing businesses have made it easier for us to encourage people to voluntarily follow the rules and to work together,” he said. People from all over the city, as well as sports associations and groups of activists, workers, and teachers, all got involved.
"Our first program was house-to-house distribution of disinfectant and disinfecting alleys and streets, setting up health stations in order to create a culture of confronting coronavirus, identifying sick families or families we suspected were sick, and identifying and receiving financial assistance from the well-off classes of each neighborhood to support the weak and vulnerable families in the same neighborhoods...Little by little, people became aware of the dangers of the disease, and more people began to volunteer. People's committees are now expanding across neighborhoods.”
Khanchehzar said he thought such committees were springing up across Iran, especially in Tehran and in Kurdistan province. "In the southern cities of Kurdistan, such as Paveh, Nosud, Javanroud, and Nudsheh, civil society organizations and activists have done a great job in a joint effort. I heard that not a single case of coronavirus infection has been seen in Javanroud.” He said in many cases, volunteers have adopted the neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to deal with the most badly affected areas first, controlling the flow of traffic and providing food for those who need it most. “I hope these experiences will be disseminated and transmitted on a larger scale, up to a point where they are formed all over Iran."
Help From Abroad
Several civil society organizations based outside Iran have sent donations — necessary goods and equipment as well as cash contributions — to their fellow Iranians.
"Mothers Against Poverty," "Popular Anti-Coronavirus Headquarters in Iran" and the "Iran Salamat Campaign" are among the groups managing and distributing donations sent from outside the Islamic Republic.
Ordinary working people have continued to face ill-treatment throughout the coronavirus crisis, not least because of the government’s failure to order the closure of all businesses, whether in the private or public sector; some government offices remain open. Every day there are reports of people contracting coronavirus, most likely in the workplace.
"Unfortunately, the greatest pressure is now on the doctors and nurses and the medical staff of the hospitals," said Azad Khanchehzar from the People's Committee of Neighborhoods Against Coronavirus. "If this pressure is to be reduced and the disease and death are to be eliminated, it will not be possible without funding.”
According to him, the People's Committees of the Neighborhoods in Marivan has invited organizations such as the Teachers' Union and the Seasonal Workers' Union and other civil society organizations to work together. "I hope these steps by the people can help us confront the deadly coronavirus disease and to protect their lives and the lives of their loved ones."
During the crisis, IranWire’s Persian website has offered advice, with the support of lawyers and labor activists, to workers and employees, urging them to demand paid time off and other rights from their employers. As one labor activist explained to IranWire, workers should use sick leave — a basic right that many employees do not enjoy in Iran — to protect themselves from coronavirus, if they can. IranWire’s legal consultant confirmed that government employees can also use their entitled vacation leave to protect themselves.
Marivan activist Azad Khanchehzar said the actions of his group and others were beginning to take effect, and to galvanize people from all over the city. “People realized that they had to intervene to protect their health and safety.” The group’s motto, "Unity will kill any virus,” began to resonate, as did its practical message: “Stay at home and pay attention to hygiene, disinfection, and quarantine.”