The term "home quarantine" has now been added to the daily vocabulary of people around the world. Authorities in cities and countries around the world have required people to stay home to fight the deadly coronavirus disease by limiting its spread. Until a few months ago, coronavirus was not in common vocabulary, and many were looking for an opportunity to catch up on their work and lives; a time to relax, a time to watch movies and TV series, an hour to study, even a chance to tidy up a room in the house. But now many people are not satisfied with these opportunities, are not enjoying themselves, and want to return to normal as soon as possible.
Compulsory lockdowns and the unclear end date for this period of enforced relaxation also make many people compare the experience to time in prison. Some speak of depression and despair, and others go a step further and compare quarantine with solitary confinement. IranWire has spoken with people who have experienced true solitary confinement, in prisons, asking them about the similarities and differences between quarantine and solitary confinement.
Most people who have experienced prison and solitary confinement do not find it comparable to home quarantine. But the strategies they used to maintain their moral in those difficult days are likely to serve as a source of relief for those who are frustrated and despairing today.
Mercedeh Ghaedi was arrested in June 1982 on charges of being a member of the Iranian Communist Workers' Party. She was imprisoned until May 1990, in the Joint Committee Prison, Ghezel Hesar Prison and Evin Prison.
She now resides in the United Kingdom and recalls her imprisonment at a time when people around the world are confronting the coronavirus pandemic by sheltering at home and living under quarantine.
Many of Ghaedi’s old friends have called her in recent days to ask her about the "resilience" needed to tolerate closed environments and her own solitary confinement experiences.
Has your experience of prison helped you to endure the coronavirus quarantine?
Certainly. However, there is a big difference between prison in Iran in the 1980s and the quarantine. When I think of the differences, the first thing that comes to mind is that we have the right to go to the toilet in quarantine. I'll tell you in detail about this. We can video chat with family members. Or cook with the family. Although not a normal style of living, it is not comparable to prison.
Do you think there is a solution to tolerating quarantine that is common to surviving prison?
Yes. The most important thing in common, I believe, is human motives. I admit that the goal of people like me is tied to politics and that we have a duty to strive for human rights, for workers who endure poverty and unequal conditions, or women who are victims of violence. But the human motive is still present. If we each quarantine ourselves, we have helped to break the chain of transmission of the disease to save human lives, and if we are indifferent, we would accelerate human death, that is, if we break that rule, we are infecting the world around us.
Do you also include the element of happiness or a desire for life?
When I was in prison, for the love of family and friends, and to achieve my aspirations, I wanted to stay alive. The dream of freedom and the end of those frightening days and embracing my mother kept me alive. The desire for life and the desire to continue living.
Tolerance is also important. I think we all have the ability to adapt and accept harsh conditions. For the sake of preserving our lives and preserving the lives of the people we love.
A simple way is to think of the coronavirus crisis, of the moment when we have gone through the crisis and we are happy and fortunate again.
Do you mean dreaming?
I call it creative visualization, something that can give you hope in a difficult time. For example, you emerge from the torture chamber and your feet are infected because of open wounds left by the lashes, you have a severe fever, you have to sleep in the middle of the hallway with your back to others, and you can't even go to the bathroom. What can be done? I would prefer to think of a moment I saw my mother and hugged her.
Instead of feeling powerless and falling apart, you have to believe in the power of your mind. These are the words of a person who heard the news of the execution of both of her brothers in prison and that the wife of one of the brothers was taken away before his eyes and never returned. I never experienced a breakdown because of my mental strength. The moment they took my brother's wife, I did not feel completely helpless, despite all the sadness I felt. I was thinking of tomorrow and that I would survive to tell that woman's story.
Hope in life and inner happiness are very important – to know that after this crisis the world will still be in its orbit. In Norooz 1984, when I was in prison, when we were destroyed by torture, and I had even heard the news of the execution of my brother, Sadeq, and had received no visits for months, we were still determined to celebrate the new year. I had told my mother to send me happy clothes. One of the Kurdish prisoners, called Mastureh, whose mother was grieving for her son, was with us, and I begged her to wear a floral scarf that my mother had sent for me, to celebrate the spring. We sang and rejoiced that day, and of course, because of making too much noise, we were deprived of the daily tea that mattered so much to us. Life was still going on. We would put our ears to the walls and hear the sounds of cars, helping us to remember that one day the crisis would be over.
You mentioned subjective and individual efforts which were effective. Were there any collective elements to surviving confinement?
Yes: planning. In my opinion, planning and discipline is essential for quarantine. We started exercising at 6am and after that we were drinking yellow tea. I think a family can also have group exercise programs in their homes and commit to it.
We had a set cleaning hour. Health care is part of prison and quarantine, and cleaning and health are important. We also had a reading session. We didn't have access to any books, but each of us spoke to others based on the memory of the books we had read. Or had hours of interesting memories and jokes. We were not going to give in to despair.
Before I went to jail, I used to ask Gholam Keshavarz, a friend of mine who was later assassinated in Cyprus, about his time in prison and its hardships. He once told me to believe that I would be short on time inside prison. I wondered how this could be possible. And later I found I really was running short on time because I had plans for every minute. Planning, discipline, and being able to run regular programs under quarantine can also help.
Do you also find similarities to problems like impatience, mood swings, or even violence during your home quarantine?
In prison, coexistence was important because different political factions had different views. There was always the possibility that someone was an infiltrator and would expose you. I think there is another contradiction in the quarantine process. A young generation that is at odds with the older generation in its choices must stay under the same roof as its parents. A girl who has always been blamed for wanting more freedom is now in the same place with the same restrictive parents. We had a couple of hours for ourselves in solitary confinement. I think this privacy is also necessary during quarantine. Handicrafts or small innovations can be relaxing. I wore a sunglasses case for my brother Javad, who was executed in the same period. The dream that imprisonment would finish and the fun I would have when it was over was good.
Have you ever encountered a person in prison with a contagious disease?
Yes, one person, but I must say it was one of the bitterest memories of in my imprisonment that I will never forget. It was the scabies epidemic in Ghezel Hesar Prison. It was a bitter experience that began in the women's ward. Almost everyone was infected. Severe itching and skin discomfort without the possibility of washing and cleaning. All our equipment was contaminated. The severity of the infection varied and some were suffering heavily and their bodies were covered in blood. Scabies is contagious, and the prison authorities didn't pay attention until after a few months, when the disease had completely taken its toll. Then they brought in big boilers and boiled our clothes and gave us medicine until the disease was contained.
Given all that you have said, can the current conditions be compared to prison?
Well, strangely enough, they are similar and different. For example, you now have social media, TV, satellite, telephones, devices with many applications, connecting you to the outside world. You have fun and interact with family members. There were no such facilities in prison. You had no choice but to walk. I mentioned the bathroom earlier. During my one year in the Joint Committee Prison, we could use the toilet three times a day before each prayer time. Our body was used to this routine. Certainly, human beings, if necessary, will also pass through the coronavirus crisis and quarantine.
We all slept in the hallway during our interrogations. A long corridor with no beds and nothing to separate us. Everyone had an old military blanket that was both blanket and mattress. We were blindfolded in the hallway. We had no right to remove the blindfold. During the time we went to the bathroom, we had the right to take our blindfolds off. We did get any fresh air for days on end. But many of us, including me, eventually escaped this stage.
Have you thought about the days after the coronavirus crisis?
Yes, very much. I think the quarantine experience will change the quality of social life, and perhaps after the coronavirus crisis, human beings will look at prison in a new way. I think the post-coronavirus world will be a beautiful one, as the world has gone through a difficult shared experience; this crisis will help us empathize with each other, and rectify many of the disorders. I think people will be kinder to each other.
These days, we look at pictures of grandchildren talking to grandmothers from the window or hear the sound of hope from inside homes, much like the sound of our laughter at the height of the executions of our comrades.
But statistics show an increase in domestic violence.
Domestic violence and the economic crisis may increase, but it seems to me that the positive consequences will be more profound. We will reconsider our relationship with the planet and with each other. Think of it: we have everything we had and are just locked in our homes and have no right to leave. It is like a prison which has a bathroom, a phone, video chat devices. There is still something, called "compulsion" to stay at home, that annoys people, and that is the source of change.