Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is a celebration of life. The holiday falls on the Spring equinox and celebrates light triumphing over darkness. Only this year, it did not feel quite this way.
On March 19, en route to my family’s celebration in San Diego, the state of California announced a stay-at-home order commencing at midnight. Upon arrival my family greeted one another with elbow bumps rather than the customary kisses on each cheek. This new way of greeting, now normal, was first shown to me this night by my cousins, recent immigrants from Iran. I remember sensing that they knew something more about the pandemic than I did—just how bad it could be.
Like most people in diasporas, my extended family keeps in touch with friends and family in their country of origin, in our case Iran. In chats with my family that night, I learned of the devastation Iran was suffering under the outbreak. On the night of Nowruz, Iran had not yet implemented social distancing measures although it had one of the world’s highest infection rates. The following day, health officials in Iran reported one death every ten minutes.
So after the New Year celebration, I left curious and concerned for how Iranian people were holding up. I researched, spoke with Iranians, and to members of the diaspora community here in the U.S, including my relatives. And I learned of a great fear for the country.
Social distancing measures were not implemented in Iran until March 27—and then were reduced on April 11 due to the president’s concerns about the economy. In a New Year holiday season that began on March 17 and lasted until April 4, schools were closed, “so people are traveling to the north of Iran,” my cousin, who lives in San Diego, said at the time. (She wishes to remain unnamed as she travels frequently from Iran). The problem, she went on, is that the region’s healthcare system is over capacity due to the virus, so if people get sick they will have trouble obtaining treatment. “There is still very bad traffic,” she said. “Many people are going on vacation, but this is a bad time to travel.” She said that with no government restrictions at the time, people were still going out to purchase items and travel for the New Year celebration.
Over a Whatsapp conversation with a 35-year old artist in Tehran, who wishes to remain anonymous out of what he describes as not fear but rather strategy in his profession, I learned of similar concerns. He expressed frustration at the government’s missed opportunity—to keep people home during the New Year holiday. He explained that the same businesses that close every New Year, like galleries and theaters, were closed, but shortly after the holiday things resumed as normal. Traffic remained heavy, indicating that people were not staying home. “They said they want to let people decide themselves, but is it the same when protests are in the streets?” the artist wrote in a message, referring to the country’s recent street protests, where a crackdown by security forces claimed more than 1,000 lives.
According to the BBC, on April 8 the Iranian health ministry reported that the number of COVID-19 cases in the nation had increased by 1,997, to 67,286, and the death toll had increased from 121 to 4,003 lives. It is no mystery that U.S. sanctions have made it difficult for the Iranian people, especially during this time. And with an economy already struggling prior to the virus, the government is pushing for things to open up sooner rather than later. To many, this is troubling. But at the same time it is difficult to navigate the economy as it takes yet another hit. Ava Ansari, an Iranian artist and curator based in Detroit, said that her parents in Tehran are lucky in that they do not have to leave the house in order to work. My relatives, also in the capital city, echoed these thoughts. Our families are the fortunate ones. Many people had to continue working until the government mandated they stop. But they will not stay home for long. A national reopening that still seems painfully distant to American society is rapidly approaching for Iranians.
As the Iranian economy suffers, president Hassan Rouhani has called for a “smart social distancing policy,” under which he reopened certain sectors of the economy beginning on Saturday, April 11. Iran’s Chamber of Trade Unions has created a list of both low-risk businesses—including pastry shops and outdoor cafes—that will be reopened, and high-risk businesses—theaters, malls, schools, restaurants—that cannot, as they involve more people in closer proximity. Government offices will also have limited hours, and not all employees will work at the same time. The reopening will not be implemented in Tehran where the outbreak has recently spiked.
As of this week, Iranian health officials warned against the nation’s reopening as cases continue to increase. But the leadership is proceeding. The reason? The economy. “The livelihood of the people is important, and today the people’s income and employment is one of the most important socioeconomic factors affecting health, which we cannot ignore,” said the spokesman for the health ministry, Kianush Jahanpur, in a statement to the Iranian press.
A shockingly high number of civilians will be at risk due to this decision, but the Iranian government is not the only player to consider. “There is no way to talk about the functionality of Iran’s government without considering the paralyzing impacts of U.S. sanctions and the incredible amount of international pressure they deal with,” said Ansari, the Detroit-based curator and artist, At the same time, she continued, the Iranian government “did not put enough efforts for establishing the culture and infrastructure for social distancing and online economic building, before they got to this phase.”
The Trump Administration has taken a hard stance on choosing not to exempt sanctions on Iran despite the outbreak. The U.S. Department of State released an “Iran’s Sanctions Relief Scam” statement, which stated, “Iran’s slick foreign influence campaign to obtain sanctions relief is not intended for the relief or health of the Iranian people but to raise funds for its terror operations.” While the question remains whether the Iranian government would allocate relief resources resulting from lifted sanctions to citizens’ medical necessities, there is no doubt that the sanctions have made the outbreak more difficult to contain. In February, the U.S. State Department did ease 208 sanctions on humanitarian trade by permitting licensing for this type of trade through Iran’s Central Bank. But Western banks are in murky waters when it comes to potential penalties for engaging in humanitarian trade with Iran. Al-Monitor, a D.C. based publication reporting on the Middle East, reported that only five Iranian banks can facilitate humanitarian trade without putting foreign trade partners at risk of U.S. sanctions. This causes foreign businesses to shy away, leaving trade options scant for Iran.
As infection rates climb, the European trade group INSTEX delivered its first round of humanitarian aid to Iran last week. Iran also requested additional relief via a five billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the EU is on board, the U.S.—a large stakeholder in the IMF—has reportedly blocked the request.
The Iranian president expressed his frustrations at the U.S. in a cabinet meeting. President Trump offered help in early March, claiming that all Iran needed to do was ask. Rouhani declined but did ask the Trump Administration for something else, to “leave alone the other nations and companies and buyers and exporters and importers.”
The Iranian government also accused the West, particularly the U.S., of making things worse through relief efforts, possibly intentionally. The government’s suspicions apparently remained in late March, when a group of French doctors from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) arrived to construct a 50-person hospital in Esfahan, one of the hardest hit regions. The government announced it could do without the help. “While we offer our gratitude to MSF, with the national mobilization plan in place and all medical capacities of our armed forces used to fight the coronavirus, there is no need for hospital beds to be set up by foreign workers at the moment. This presence is canceled,” tweeted Alireza Vahabzadeh, an adviser in the ministry of health.
My relatives’ concern about the coronavirus, displayed at the Nowruz celebration back in mid-March, soon became widely shared in the U.S.. Like the Iranians, we in the U.S. share a confusing, ever-changing presidential rhetoric, fueled by a tumultuous economy. When I spoke to Ansari, the curator and artist based in Detroit, in the beginning of March, before the virus had taken hold in the U.S., she said that her parents in Tehran had warned that a widespread infection in America would be inevitable. “It’s sad to say this under these circumstances,” she said, “but we finally have something in common.”