On Monday evening, just five days ahead of Nowruz, the Persian new year holiday, police descended upon a small local market in west Tehran. They ordered local vendors to pack up their wares, their socks, colanders, and plastic flowers, telling them that by selling goods in public they were helping spread the coronavirus. On Tuesday evening, they returned, and found one tenacious seller hawking in the same place. “You, here again!” barked a security officer. “If I don’t sell, how am I going to pay my rent?” the woman asked plaintively.
As Iran celebrates its new year, black death banner announcements hang from Tehran’s eerily deserted squares. The virus has ravaged its way across the country in recent weeks, reportedly killing 1,135 and infecting more than 17,000 (many believe these figures underestimate the scale), making Iran one of the most impacted countries in the world, alongside Italy and China.
The contagion has unfolded against the backdrop of an economic crisis that has made Iranians uniquely vulnerable. The virus’s origin in Wuhan demanded swift state action to cut off travel and trade with China, a tough move given Iran’s acute economic isolation, and China’s role in keeping it afloat against an ever-tightening regime of punitive US sanctions. The virus’s spread was then accelerated by shortages of medicines and equipment, wrought at least in part by US sanctions.
By Thursday, a health official announced that one Iranian was dying of the virus every 10 minutes. Social media platforms reverberated with images of outdoor funerals, black-clad mourners standing in calibrated distances apart.
The crisis has touched most corners of the country, but it is most severely impacting the poor and working class. While it is older men who are dying in highest numbers, the economic impact especially hurts women, who are most liable to lose work, and shoulder increased duties, looking after sick relatives and children staying home from school. Iranians’ purchasing power has plummeted in the past two years, as the mismanaged economy shuddered through Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of US sanctions. As Nahid, a women’s rights activist, put it: “When people met this virus, their nutrition was already poorer, their immune systems were weakened, many were already unable to afford health care.”
Qom is where the coronavirus first spread. The city’s MP warned in late February that a virus was killing people in his city, but officials publicly downplayed its gravity. For several fraught days, the government’s position appeared muddled and uncertain, but as senior politicians fell ill, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed the nation on national television, thanking frontline medical workers for their efforts in fighting the coronavirus.
Since then, the government’s response has shifted palpably, somewhat easing the panic and mistrust. Outspoken local officials provide regular numbers on the dead and infected, and most have set up roadblocks to prevent heedless holiday travellers from entering their cities. Airlines have cut most domestic flights. Despite these interruptions, stores across the country heave with goods; the vast majority of products Iranians consume are domestically produced. This self-sufficiency, borne of years of isolation, now works to Iran’s advantage.
In Qom itself, a movement of grassroots mobilisation is now in full swing. The city’s itinerant population of seminarians and traders has left, and the citizens of Qom remain, banding together with a resigned solidarity. Several volunteer aid groups have emerged, and now organise under a central hub; together they disinfect streets in crowded areas, distribute food to poorer or sick families, and offer relief shifts to hospital cleaners and mortuaries. “Basically people saw that what the government warned – that if you come out of your home, you’ll die – is coming to pass,” said Seyed Ali Pourtabatabai, a journalist based in Qom. “The fear of death, the fear of being next or being responsible for others death by doing nothing, this has made people think they better help.”
Recent days have also seen a surge of grassroots efforts by women’s activists, who are channelling their networks and organising experience to offer health advice, especially to rural areas. Setareh, a women’s rights activist from Tehran who moved back to her provincial town last year, spends hours visiting shopkeepers to brief them on hygiene practices, distributing tongs and plastic gloves. “They’re so thankful when we explain things to them,” she said.
The harm inflicted on especially poor pockets of south Tehran, where drug addiction is rampant and many women are heads of households, has been devastating. In these areas, families occupy cramped informal dwellings, and just barely survive by peddling goods on the metro – work that is now banished to stop contagion. Men tend to work as day labourers, pulling trolleys of goods to the bazaar, and are now out of work, as trade is curtailed. Mary, a women’s rights activist whose organisation delivers food and medicine to these families door-to-door, says the mood is bleak. Many have sick relatives at home and cannot leave to buy the food they cannot afford. “These people we serve, they faced a multitude of problems before, but now it is a hundred times worse. It’s no longer a matter of going hungry; now those who are poor, they will die.”
Well-heeled Iranians, like their counterparts globally, can more or less afford to protect themselves. Banks in north Tehran dole out hand sanitiser at the door and caution customers to maintain a metre’s distance. With intensive care wards full, the affluent buy oxygen tanks for their homes. Sohrab, an environmental activist, recounts visiting a luxury mall in north Tehran, where health workers took temperatures at the door, and turned away anyone who looked working class, without explanation.
Medical charities that aid other groups are struggling. Charities and private sector groups are banding together to raise funds to build clinics and purchase equipment and supplies from China. But the sanctions are making even this hard. “Charities are having a hard time moving money,” says Sharif Nezam-Mafi, who heads the Iran Swiss Chamber of Commerce and is involved with one such effort, Nafas. “Everything that is getting into Iran is finding its way through loopholes, not the formal humanitarian channels. It’s as though they are going out of their way to make it harder.”
Suspending sanctions during this pandemic should not be seen as a troubling or even monumental thing to do. Proponents of sanctions in the US administration insist that only extreme pressure will bring about changes in Iranian policy – but we are in different times now. Controlling the virus would not be a favour to the Iranian government, but to Iranians themselves – and indeed, to the rest of the world.