In Iran, Will God Stop Coronavirus?

March 3, 2020
A cautionary sign is taped inside a store window in Iran.

He stood at the press conference on Feb. 24 and spoke about the coronavirus outbreak, visibly uncomfortable and sweating profusely. As he reassured the public about imminent containment, he removed his glasses and wiped his face with a handkerchief, and then began to cough.

Shortly thereafter, Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy minister of health — the man who’s been tasked with leading the country’s anti-coronavirus task force — announced he had tested positive for coronavirus.

Iran is now second only to China in coronavirus-related deaths. As of press time, authorities are  reporting 77 people have died in Iran, although hospital sources have told the BBC that figure is closer to 210. More than 1,500 cases of infection have been confirmed in the country.
Neither ordinary citizens nor Iranian leaders have been immune to the virus, including Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs. Ebtekar was seen sitting next to President Hassan Rouhani at a cabinet meeting days before she announced she was infected.

A member of parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi, also tested positive for COVID-19. On March 2, Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, died after falling sick from the virus. Reportedly, roughly 10% of the nation’s lawmakers are infected.

And because it’s Iran, even a deadly virus is getting entangled with politics and, of course, the Almighty.

Ground zero in Iran is suspected of being the holy city of Qom. An annual destination for 20 million Shiite pilgrims, it’s home to more than 50 seminaries, a shrine and a theological center. With ritual piety taking precedence over hygiene, thousands of pilgrims kiss holy spaces. This custom is suspected of being a factor in the virus’ spread.

Those pilgrims then returned home to places such as Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. Iran hadn’t informed neighboring states of the danger in time, and people still are entering and leaving Qom.

The regime announced it has no intention of quarantining cities, least of all Qom, because it’s such a powerful symbol, not only of Shiite Islam, but of a certain fatalistic resignation that argues that everything, including an epidemic, is in the hands of a higher power, and if you’re destined to be infected, it is the will of God. To prove this, some defiant Iranians have shared videos on social media in which they’ve actually licked shrines throughout the country.

In addressing the virus, Ayatollah Abbas Tabrizian (from Qom) took to his 120,000 followers on social messaging service Telegram to denounce Western medicine as “un-Islamic.” He then offered alternatives to fighting COVID-19, including burning wild rue and eating massive amounts of brown sugar. His final tip? “Before bedtime, drench some cotton in violet oil and apply onto your anus.”

If the scourge of disease wasn’t enough, the regime is facing another major issue with the outbreak: It’s engaged in a dangerous campaign of lies and inaction in the face of an epidemic. This lack of leadership won’t be soon forgotten by opposition groups and the public.

My heart aches for the people of Iran. In the past year, more than 1,500 citizens were killed in anti-government protests, and in January, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard downed a Ukrainian jetliner, killing all 176 passengers and crew, including many Iranians.
Despite surviving the turbulence of the past year, the regime might face an insurmountable challenge in the form of the latest threat to strike the country of 81 million people.

And if the horror of a viral epidemic that was both covered up and improperly contained costs the clerics the power they attained 41 years ago, they may have to rest assured that the end of their reign was … the will of God.

Although something tells me there’s not enough violet oil in the world to address this new, deadly challenge.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker. 

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