Facing one of the world’s worst outbreaks of coronavirus, Iranians in local communities are coming together to help those affected as the country battles a disease that has claimed the lives of nearly 1,300 people and infected more than 18,000 across the country, according to official figures on March 19.
Doctors, nurses, celebrities, and others have been posting videos and online messages telling citizens to remain home while volunteers have sown masks, sanitized public places, and made care packages that include medicinal alcohol and masks for poorer families.
The private sector is also pitching in with a coalition of private businesses opening a clinic in the capital, Tehran, and donating protective gear to severely strained hospitals facing shortages of materiel due to the outbreak that has claimed the lives of many health-care workers.
A Tehran-based businessman involved with such efforts told RFE/RL that many feel they have to take matters into their own hands because “the government has no money due to [U.S.-led economic] sanctions, no power, and [poor judgement].”
“By helping the health system and health-care workers we are helping ourselves,” said the businessman, who did not want to be named.
After China and Italy, Iran has had more infections and deaths than any other country in the world.
The pandemic comes amid widespread public mistrust over Iranian leaders and criticism of their initial delayed response and failure to quarantine the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, where the first two cases of coronavirus were reported on February 19.
The virus is believed to have spread from Qom to many of the country’s 31 provinces.
Iranian authorities have not imposed mandatory lockdowns in any cities like other countries are doing, but they have urged Iranians to stay home while closing schools, universities, and tourist sites while also cancelling public events.
Friday Prayers throughout the country have been suspended and recently the authorities have also shut shrines in a number of cities, including Qom.
Tehran, which is facing tough U.S. sanctions that have crippled the economy and decimated its oil revenues, has been scrambling to deal with the crisis.
For the first time in 60 years, Iran requested a $5 billion loan from the IMF to help combat the coronavirus.
Amid widespread accusations of incompetency, Iranian officials have said the sanctions have seriously hampered Tehran’s ability to respond to the coronavirus crisis while calling for their removal for humanitarian reasons.
But the U.S. administration, which announced new restrictions against Iran earlier this week, has shown no sign it is willing to offer the Islamic republic sanctions relief.
Tehran Mayor Piruz Hanachi said on March 17 that Iran’s threadbare economy would be unable to handle the cost of enforcing quarantines and the resulting loss of revenue they would cause. “In a normal situation and a good economy, we could have imposed a quarantine,” Hanachi was quoted as saying by Eghtesadonline.com.
“But what comes next, like providing necessary goods or compensating for [the economic] losses [by businesses] across Iran, is not possible, so a complete lockdown cannot be carried out,” he added.
A woman in Tehran who has been delivering masks and medicinal alcohol to the poor, said everyone has to do their part. “For example, my elderly mother has been calling family and friends urging them to stay home while I have been helping in other ways,” the woman said. “It’s like the time of the [1980-88] war [with Iraq], but now we have to defend our country and our loved ones against an invisible enemy.”
On social media, people have been posting images of acts of kindness, including disinfections of streets and cash machines as well as the distribution of masks and soaps to street children and donating food packages to poor families.
In Gilan and other provinces with major tourist sites, some citizens have gone to the main roads with handwritten signs to stop travelers who have ignored warnings by authorities to stay home.
There have also been reports of medical and nursing students volunteering to help in hospitals to assist overwhelmed staff.
Many have also said they will donate money to those in need and particularly those affected by the pandemic.
Writing on Twitter, well-known entrepreneur Pedram Soltani said the practice of giving “eydi,” or monetary gifts for Norouz — the Persain New Year — to those who are struggling because of the pandemic is now a must.
“No year was as bitter and economically difficult as [the current Iranian year, which ends on March 20]. The coronavirus has taken away the last chance for those hoping to make money on Norouz,” he said.
“We should look around [at people]. This year giving ‘eydi’ is no longer a tradition, it’s a social responsibility,” said Soltani, a former vice president of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce.