Coronavirus ravages Iran all the way to the top

Bloomberg | Arsalan Shahla, Golnar Motevalli and Marc Champion: Iran is dealing with one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the new coronavirus, and the disease was quick to reach the top ranks of the government. Four current and former Iranian officials have died so far from coronavirus: a member of the Expediency Council that advises 80-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; an aide and mentor to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; a former ambassador to the Vatican; and a newly elected member of parliament. Iraj Harirchi, the deputy health minister in charge of the country’s coronavirus task force, has it himself, as does the head of Iran’s medical services. Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar—once spokeswoman for the revolutionaries who took 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979—says she’s sick with the virus, too.

Major General Hossein Salami, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), announced the likely culprit at a military ceremony in Kerman province on March 5: a U.S. biological attack, first on China and then on Iran. Salami’s lashing out at foreign enemies underlines the sense of bewilderment in Iran as to why the disease has struck the country so hard. According to Iranian government statistics, as of March 9, there were 7,161 confirmed cases of Covid-19, as the disease from the virus is called, and 237 deaths across the nation of 84 million. The coronavirus seems to have shot up northern Iran’s highway artery from Qom, a major religious center, to the capital of Tehran, which is now the country’s most affected city, with 1,945 confirmed cases on March 9. Despite it being the source of the earliest cases in Iran, Qom was never placed under quarantine—a stark contrast to containment measures taken in China and in Italy, the worst-hit European nation. (Following Iran’s trajectory, politicians in Italy and France have tested positive for coronavirus.)

Qom is an important center for a government in which many high officials—right up to President Hassan Rouhani—are also clerics. And Qom’s religious leaders are powerful political figures in their own right. A senior cleric who represents the city in parliament, Mojtaba Zonnour, is among the MPs receiving treatment for coronavirus in a hospital. He has close links to Salami’s IRGC. “Many of the officials travel to Qom, and they go there frequently,’’ says a person close to the government who asked not to be identified.

Senior conservative clerics are now making unusual on-camera statements, urging the faithful not to kiss or lick religious shrines. But not everyone listens. In one clip posted on Twitter recently, a young man warned against frightening the public with scare stories, then made a show of kissing Shiism’s second-holiest shrine, in Qom.

Many hospitals in Iran have been designated entirely to treating coronavirus patients. Six of 14 Tehran hospitals contacted by Bloomberg News on March 6 said either that they were full and new patients would have to wait or that they wouldn’t be admitted at all. “We have 14 patients in the emergency ward who have been waiting for an empty bed for two days now,” said an administrator at Torfeh Hospital in downtown Tehran.

A doctor in Gilan province says patients with coronavirus-type symptoms were coming to local hospitals two weeks before the government publicized the first Iranian case, in Qom, on Feb. 19. Chest scans showed signs of an unusually virulent pneumonia, “but nobody was taking it seriously,’’ says the doctor, who asked not to be named. It took until this month for the province to get its own testing facilities, the doctor says. Before that, tests had to be sent to Tehran, causing delays and errors.

With some doctors and nurses now infected, medical personnel are in short supply, as are protective equipment and disinfectants, according to the doctor. Medicine is scarce, too, at least in part because of sanctions the U.S. reimposed after President Trump withdrew from a multilateral 2015 deal that limited Iran’s nuclear fuel program. “Divvying up a small amount of medicine among a large number of patients is a daily headache,’’ says the doctor, who estimates that 10 to 12 Covid-19 patients a day, on average, die at the hospital. “We had 18 to 20 deaths in one day alone, and some of the deceased are tested only after they die to determine burial procedures.” A hospital official said it couldn’t confirm the number of deaths from coronavirus.

Many in Tehran are staying home, venturing out only to buy essentials. In the runup to Iranian New Year on March 20, stores in Tehran would normally be jammed, but many—especially those offering luxury goods—are empty. “We’ve been caught in the crossfire,’’ says Majid, a 42-year-old driver for the Iranian ride-hailing service Snapp. “On the one side, our incompetent officials have failed to contain the virus. They opened the gates to flights from China as if corona was a joke. On the other side, they have raised the price of gasoline and advised people to stay inside.’’

The government’s response has been inconsistent. It blocked roads to provinces with high infection rates, such as Gilan and Mazandaran on the Caspian Sea north of Tehran, and schools have been closed. But no cities are locked down, and employees in government offices and state organizations were working on a normal schedule as of March 7. At the same time, a deputy health minister made a televised plea for people to stay at home: “We have 140,000 beds across all hospitals in the country, but we may have to add new beds by 10 times that number if people don’t observe health measures,’’ he said on March 6.

With Iranians sequestering themselves at home, state TV channels are airing dubbed foreign films, including the Lord of the Rings and Toy Story series, to keep people entertained. Instagram, WhatsApp chat groups, and Telegram channels have become hubs for plague jokes and at-home exercise tutorials. In a country where dancing in public is officially discouraged, videos of dancing nurses have become a phenomenon: Nurses filmed themselves swirling their hips and wrists to pop songs, their identities shielded by hazmat suits, masks, and hospital gowns.

Trust in the government, never high among a large share of Iran’s populace, may be at an all-time low. (A visibly ill Harirchi assuring the nation on live TV on Feb. 24 that the government had everything under control did little to inspire confidence.) Memes ridiculing official responses to Covid-19 have gone viral. “The first Friday without wishing for the death of other nations,’’ went one joke, shared on social media after Friday prayers were canceled on March 6. “Well done to the people of Iran.’’

Jokes aside, the outbreak in Iran is deadly and shows no sign of abating. Infections in the area are going up “exponentially,” says Gholam Ali Jafarzadeh, an MP for the city of Rasht in Gilan province. “We will witness a humanitarian catastrophe if serious measures are not taken.”