Iran: the “sick” man of the Middle East

The coronavirus has hit Iran especially badly due to government blunders, misinformation and US sanctions. This crisis has exposed all the rottenness of Iranian capitalism and brought the masses' anger at the regime, which was already heating up, close to boiling point.

As of Monday, 9 March, the Iranian government has reported 237 dead and 7,161 infected by the coronavirus. As of Saturday, around 16,000 were hospitalised as suspect cases. These “official” numbers are definitely an underestimation of the real severity of the problem due to government misinformation, lack of coronavirus testing kits in Iran, and because most infected people do not go to hospital. These numbers have skyrocketed in the last three weeks and will continue to grow exponentially in the immediate period. To illustrate the accelerating severity of the crisis, 43 of the total reported deaths were announced in the last 24 hours. Among the dead so far are seven politicians and government officials, including lawmakers Fatemeh Rahbar and Mohammad Ali Ramazani Dastak.

Given the state of things today, it is hard to believe that just three weeks ago, on 17 February, the deputy health minister went on TV and said there is no coronavirus in Iran! A few days later, travellers from Iran tested positive for coronavirus in Canada and Lebanon, and four residents of the holy city Qom were declared dead from the virus. In the short period that has passed since his original announcement, the deputy health minister himself has tested positive for the virus.

The virus first appeared in the holy city of Qom, home of the shrine of Fatima-bint-Musa. According to the mullahs, the shrine can heal the sick, and thousands visit Qom from across the country each day to receive its blessings. This time however, potentially thousands of these pilgrims on a quest for better health contracted the coronavirus and carried it to their home provinces and beyond. With the holy city as its source of origin, the virus has now spread to all 31 provinces of Iran. From here, Iranian travellers have spread the virus to Bahrain, Canada, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Oman, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Kuwait.

It is no accident that the coronavirus has spread farther in Iran than in most other countries. In its attempts to deal with the virus, the government has revealed its utter rottenness and ineptitude, making one error after another. Incompetence and corruption of government officials, splits at the top of the administration and economic difficulties exacerbated by US sanctions have rendered the government incapable of combatting this public health crisis.

Government response: desperate times, stupid measures

On 30 January, high-ranking officials met to discuss measures to prevent the entrance and spread of the virus inside Iran. They decided to suspend flights to and from China. Many other countries took this measure, especially after the Chinese government itself placed Hubei province under strict quarantine. But by despite the government’s decision, flights were not suspended. Mahan Airlines, which is closely tied to the IRGC, ignored the orders. While many other airlines had suspended flights to and from China, Mahan airlines increased connecting flights between China and Tehran to increase revenues. The IRGC’s clear neglect for public health was mainly an act of desperation due to Iran’s economic difficulties, which have been greatly exacerbated by US sanctions on Iran. Even Jahanpour, speaker of the Health Ministry, said on 2 February: “If the flights are to continue then the Ministry of Health would definitely raise the matter with the government.” Despite these big words, 55 flights went ahead after the announcement, only ending on 23 February.

Parsayee, an MP from Shiraz remarked: “despite the government decision, we’re still witnessing the flow of passengers to Iran from China and transportation of passengers to China from around the world by Iranian Airlines. Aren’t the Airlines under the government's law? Are they sovereign?” To answer Parsayee’s question, the inability of the health ministry to carry out its simple orders shows the divisions within the ruling class in Iran which are being exacerbated in a time of crisis.

"I beg you to retweet so it will reach Rohani, Namaki and the higher ups. Leaving aside the people of Qom, they aren’t even giving masks to the nurses and doctors. The director of one quarantined hospital in Qom is out buying masking on the open market. Do you understand what this means? The doctors and nurses are risking their lives, but in this situation they are on the verge of striking."

Given the unrestricted travel between Iran and China, and the general incompetence of the regime, the arrival of coronavirus in the country was an inevitability. The first reported death occurred on 12 February, when the Iran newspaper announced that a 63-year-old woman exhibiting symptoms consistent with coronavirus died in a Tehran hospital. The day the article was published (before an autopsy was completed), the government claimed that the article was full of lies and the woman in question did not even exist. For weeks, the government continued to deny any reports of coronavirus in Iran. Officials finally acknowledged the presence of coronavirus in Qom on 19 February. At this point, the truth had become undeniable. Even after this, the government downplayed the number of dead and infected in the country. On 23 February, the head of the Medical University of Qom said in a TV interview: “There are instructions from the Ministry of Health not to announce the statistics [on the spread of the virus].”

Political coverup

The regime’s coverup was purely political. If word got out that Coronavirus had landed in Iran, it would hurt turnout for two key events: the celebration of the 41st anniversary of the revolution on February 11 and the parliamentary elections on 21 February. Despite the regime’s best efforts, the turnout to both was the lowest in its history.

Well before the coronavirus crisis, the regime had already thoroughly discredited itself. Even many regime insiders had to admit this. As Mahmood Sadeghi, MP put it: “After avoiding talking about the horrific events of November, after lying for three days about the reason why a passenger aircraft was shot down, now they are avoiding talking about a spreading disease. Why are you doing so much to damage the public’s trust?”

After the government was finally forced to acknowledge that coronavirus was in Qom, it caused alarm among many Iranians because of the thousands of pilgrims who travel to and from the city every day from all corners of the country. The government could have contained the virus or at least dramatically slowed its spread by putting Qom under quarantine immediately. Instead, the regime claimed that the idea of quarantining a city is outdated and useless. Due to this inaction, the virus has already spread to every province of the country.

The government could also have taken less-drastic action, such as suspending visits to the shrine. The shrine was the main reason people travelled to and from Qom, and it was itself a site for transmission to take place. Visitors often touch and kiss the shrine to take full advantage of its “healing powers”. The idea of closing down the shrine faced resistance from the religious right wing and authorities responsible for the shrine. It was finally shut down on 24 February. This meant that, for six days, the authorities were fully aware of the virus in Qom and took no action to stop its rapid spread across the country.

Ali-Akbar Hosseini-nejad, an official responsible for the shrine, was among those who refused to close it, saying: “Why is there any need to close the Shrine? People themselves should be careful...” Mohammad Saeedi, shrine custodian, said that the shrine should remain open as it is “the house of curing” and that “people should be encouraged to come”. Health Minister, Mr. Namaki told state TV that people would be allowed to visit the shrine once they had been given hand-sanitising gels, health information and face masks.

"The Basijis [youth militia] who stayed in Qom with the permission of the Islamic authorities of [the main clerical seminary] are ignoring all of the medical guidelines and have gone to the harem of Masoumeh to celebrate the birthday of Imam Ali. With this dangerous act we will soon see a second wave of coronavirus in Qom. The angry people of Qom see this as a deliberate attempt to kill the citizens."

All of this has led to a wave of anger amongst Iranians, who see the greed and narrow self-interest of the ruling class as the main reasons that tens of thousands have been infected with the deadly virus.

Finally, the government decided to act. Schools and universities were closed, major cultural and sporting events were suspended and reduced working hours were introduced across the country. But the time the government started taking any serious measures to limit transmission, it was too late to stem the tide.

Meanwhile, the closure of mosques and encouraging people to pray at home has been met with backlash from the right-wing clergy. The arch-reactionary Alam-Al-Hoda, representative of the Supreme Leadership in Mashhad, said: “The Friday prayers should not be cancelled under any circumstances.” To spite the government, these hardliners encouraged public gatherings and prayers when the former cancelled Friday prayers on 28 February.

On 3 March, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also came out and downplayed the virus, saying that “This calamity is not that big of a deal, and that there have been bigger ones in the past.” He gave specific advice for people to “pray”, as the best means of fighting the disease. So whereas the rich and powerful get the best healthcare if they show any signs of the virus, working people are advised to pray. These events will leave deep marks in the consciousness of the Iranian masses and further weaken the regime. At the same time, admitting that the shrine of healing does not work and that prayers are not useful in a real hour of need would be just as big a blow against the legitimacy of the theocracy.

Meanwhile, the liberal wing of the regime will be equally weakened if it does not act. This situation will deepen the divisions within the regime as all factions attack each other to maintain their legitimacy.


Healthcare crisis exposed

The coronavirus crisis has also revealed the weakness of the healthcare system in Iran. People do not trust the hospitals, and many who are potentially infected will not go to get checked. They are afraid that if they do and don’t have the virus, they will doubtlessly contract it at the hospital. Those who do check themselves into the hospital are put in the same room as over a dozen potential coronavirus carriers, where transmission is highly likely. Additionally, due to the US-imposed sanctions, the hospitals do not have sufficient medical equipment to deal with the crisis.

The government has made successive blunders in its response to the coronavirus, which has deepened the anger among the population. With each passing day, the suffering of the masses grows and the death toll rises, and the people overwhelmingly blame the regime. They are completely fed up. They can no longer tolerate the economic crisis and the incompetent, corrupt regime. 40 years of repression and mismanagement has that effect. Two recent events in particular inspired rage in the hearts of Iranian people: the bloodbath of November where the regime murdered over 1,500 protesters, and the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner where the regime murdered another 176 people.

Officials recognise this growing anger and have tried to use coronavirus to win sympathy. When coronavirus kits first became available in Iran, all important officials got tested and those who tested positive announced it to the public. But in place of sympathy, they received even more anger. Why were these crooks getting tested when most of them didn't even have symptoms, with kits in limited supply? This plea for pity backfired spectacularly. Even when government officials started dying from coronavirus, they still got no sympathy from the people. Most people celebrated their deaths. This all goes to show the deep resentment that the masses have towards the regime, which has lost its right to exist in the eyes of the majority.

"My great uncle died two days ago due to the coronavirus. From the age of seven, with the death of his father, and until the age of 77, he was a worker. In the crisis that spread throughout Qom, he couldn’t stay at home, because he had to choose between bread and his life. This is the bitterest thought in my mind."

More than anything, tragic events such as these bring out the true nature of any regime. In Iran, perhaps in a sharper manner than anywhere else, it has revealed the failure and rottenness of capitalism. The Iranian regime is sicker than it has ever been. It has never experienced a crisis as deep that which it is going through today. The Iranian masses are more than capable of overthrowing this rotten system and have shown their iron will in the struggle for a better world time and again. At the moment, the virus is having the effect of keeping people at home, but anger and resentment are accumulating at unprecedented levels. Sooner or later, the Iranian masses will start to move again. And once they do, there is not a force on earth that can stop them from overthrowing this regime and building in its place a system that can truly push forward humankind once again.