Bizarrely enough, while some Iranian authorities are advising people to stay home, little is being done to enforce any limitations — even though a study from Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, one of the Middle East’s leading centers for scientific research, suggests that more than 3 million people could die in the country if more robust preventative measures aren’t implemented immediately.
“We are in a bad situation now. It’s all about Nowruz and the number of pilgrims who will come to Mashhad,” a resident of Iran’s second-largest city told me. Mashhad is home to the country’s most important religious site, making it Iran’s most frequented tourism destination. My source is worried about the influx of potentially infected tourists to his city.
Another Nowruz tradition is visiting the homes of your loved ones, starting with the oldest first. You’re supposed to visit as many members of the family as possible.
This year, that will have to change. The coronavirus has already cut a wide swath in Iran, in part because of the authorities’ initial and shocking unwillingness to acknowledge the scale of the emergency. The official death toll from covid-19 reached 1,284 on Thursday, although many believe the number is higher.
And it’s set to get much worse.
Huge crowds of shoppers continue to descend on Tehran’s massive bazaar. Traffic jams are clogging the streets of the city and major national highways as people depart on vacation. These are among the worrying signs that average Iranians are refusing to take social distancing seriously, squandering any chance to contain the outbreak.
On Wednesday, The Post published a Persian version of its explainer on how the virus spreads and the best ways to “flatten the curve.” I hope that many people in Iran see it and draw the right conclusions. But there’s no sign, yet, that that is happening on a wide scale.
“It’s like we’re in a cage with a government we don’t trust and people who don’t care,” my source in Mashhad said. “The people of Iran think that it’s a problem that our government made, and many just want to deny what officials say. Meanwhile the government thinks that it can solve the problem without the help of others, including the World Health Organization.”
While the military would prefer to enforce strict “shelter in place” measures, the civilian government, led by President Hassan Rouhani, seems more concerned with keeping the economy going, believing that a lockdown would stop it completely. “This rumor that in Tehran or other cities businesses and shops will be quarantined is not true,” Rouhani said Sunday, refusing to shut down activity in the country.
The government appears to be sidetracked once more by internal squabbles, diverting attention from a crisis that could prove many times costlier than any temporary cessation of commercial activity. Yet again, we see Iranian officials putting their own political survival ahead of the health and well-being of the public.
Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, don’t trust their leaders’ urgings to stay inside. Who can blame them? They’ve been lied to for decades — and even more than usual in the past few months.
The international community’s reluctance to help is making matters worse. This week, the United States imposed even more economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, even as the British government nudged Washington to ease up on the regime in Tehran at this moment of crisis.
Meanwhile, many Iranians appear to be continuing with their usual Nowruz routines, which will almost certainly increase the rapid spread of the disease among the already overwhelmed country of more than 80 million people.
If Iranians refuse to heed the warnings of scientific experts — domestic and international — those grim predictions from the university study could prove true.
A slow and uncoordinated state response, the inability to access and distribute critical supplies due to mismanagement and economic sanctions, and a public that refuses to take drastic actions to slow the spread of the vicious disease — put all this together and you have the ultimate recipe for disaster.