The ways in which key leaders’ responses differ from those of ordinary citizens tell you everything you need to know about the deepening gulf between the Iranian people and their government and how it might contribute to the spread of the disease.
The sudden sense of alarm contrasts starkly with how Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other officials initially downplayed the threat.
In the early stages of the virus story, officials in Tehran were worried about turnout in the Feb. 11 parliamentary elections. They feared that low voter turnout — which, as anticipated, was aggravated by the Iranian military’s shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January — would further undermine the notion of public support for the system. Authorities prioritized their political concerns over the risk of the virus spreading.
Now, though, the news that an increasing number of ministers and lawmakers have tested positive for the virus — two of whom have already died from it — has shattered what was left, if anything, of the government’s credibility.
“Today, the country is engaged in a biological battle,” Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said. “We will prevail in the fight against this virus, which might be the product of an American biological [attack], which first spread in China and then to the rest of the world.”
Blame-shifting is a favorite move of authoritarians.
“I believe that we are announcing and declaring our situation and some countries don’t say anything about their situation,” Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, said of his government’s handling of the outbreak at an OPEC meeting in Vienna on Friday.
It is inevitable that figureheads for the regime would make such ridiculous public proclamations. But politicizing the coronavirus threat only undermines the country’s ability to address it — by further eroding the trust of an increasingly disaffected public.
Authorities are urging the population to avoid travel to reduce the potential spread of the disease, even ominously threatening the use of “force” to impede domestic trips. Yet just last week, government officials — including Rouhani — were sneering at the idea. At this point, the measures are probably too little, too late.
“People should not consider this as an opportunity to go travelling. They should stay home and take our warnings seriously,” Health Minister Saeed Namaki said on Thursday. “This virus is highly contagious. It is a serious matter, do not joke about it.”
The long Nowruz holidays, which mark the traditional Iranian new year, are starting in less than two weeks, which will increase the risk of a rapid spread of the virus. But some Iranians are already on the move.
On Friday, videos of roadblocks and reports of gargantuan traffic jams on some of the country’s most heavily traveled highways began appearing on social media.
At times of crisis, Iranians have often sought refuge in the country’s lush northern provinces near the Caspian Sea. During the eight-year war with Iraq, many temporarily relocated there to be out of range of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s bombing raids. In more recent years, residents of Tehran have often fled the city at moments of political turmoil, jamming the narrow and precarious highway north.
Sources in the capital, meanwhile, tell me that they believe the infection rate is significantly higher than what is being reported. They say a large number of people are displaying symptoms of the coronavirus but are choosing to stay home rather than risk infecting colleagues.
One source told me that five of the seven employees in his office have had flu symptoms over the past week. Three of them have quarantined themselves at home. The others continue to work as usual. None, though, have gone to be tested. Their primary fear is that if they don’t already have the coronavirus, they might become infected at the hospital.
Trust in the health-care system — long one of the Islamic Republic’s most successful institutions — is waning.
International sanctions against Iran’s economy has led to shortages of essential medicines; official mismanagement and corruption have aggravated the problem. Yet Iranians have never blamed doctors.
Iranians typically put great faith in their health-care professionals, many of whom received their medical training at top international universities. That the public’s confidence in the national health-care system has been shaken should be of great concern.
Many of the current problems could have been avoided. Yet, by downplaying the crisis, Iranian officials have actually managed to aggravate the public panic they wanted to avoid — and have undermined their own legitimacy in the process. People are terrified, and they have no trust in the state’s ability to manage the crisis. It’s hard to blame them.