An untold story about fighting COVID-19 pandemic in Iran

TEHRAN, May 19 (MNA) – This article presents the untold story of how religion unified the political, scientific, and societal communities- particularly the community-based movements – of Iran in confronting the novel coronavirus.

“The [Iranian]government learned early on about the outbreak—but, from a combination of cynicism and ideology [i.e. the religious institutions], decided not to do anything about it”. 
“The coronavirus has sparked intense debate in Iran between ultra-conservative Shia clerics and the government”.

“In the Islamic Republic [of Iran], the pandemic is also exposing social and religious rifts that have been simmering under the surface for decades, and which come to light at times of crisis”. 

“Iran confronts coronavirus amid a ‘battle between science and conspiracy theories… Iran’s medical system was ill-prepared to handle the explosion of COVID-19 cases”.

These remarks exemplify the one-sidedness in how Iran is being portrayed, i.e. the depiction of a government and health system operating irrationally, dysfunctional, and barely coping with COVID-19, while the religious institutions worsening the situation. This article presents the untold story of how religion unified the political, scientific, and societal communities- particularly the community-based movements – of Iran in confronting the novel coronavirus. 

Religion and Policy Along with Science
The outbreak of COVID-19 was first officially announced in Iran on 19 February 2020. Shortly after, Iran’s government ordered the closure of schools, universities, cultural centers, cinemas, and art events on 22 February. Religious institutions in Iran have been able to complement the science surrounding COVID-19 and move society with evidence-based policies. One example of how religion and science worked together is the strong advice from religious leaders on praying at home, observing health and seeing medical instructions as a divine task. Religious and health teachings have been promoted as complementary to science, rather than contradictory. Friday prayers were then canceled in Tehran and 22 other cities since 27 February, and since then, a series of closures have taken place at holy shrines, mosques, and important annual religious gatherings. But again, mainstream The religious leaders also devoted half of the religious donations to combat COVID-19. Western media was critical of Iran’s religious figures and the faithful to Islam on not closing holy shrines earlier. However, what they overlooked was that religion was able to steer politics, align itself with science and policy, and arguably strengthen the country’s social capital.

Another example of how religion and science worked together was when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei emphasized the coherence of religious, humanitarian, and jihadi  motives on 15 March. At that speech, he also gave special thanks to the officials and the health system combating COVID-19. Another example comes from Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, a high-ranking religious figure, who acknowledged the medical community on 21 March while advising them and the society to pray for all those affected by this virus, and the medical community on the frontlines. In another instance, Ayatollah Mohsen Gharaati also called on the people of Iran to turn this threat into an opportunity by observing medical precautions, getting closer to God, and capitalizing on quality family time during the unprecedented isolation at home.

However, the examples on the working together of religion and policy were not confined to religious leaders. Religious communities and public movements have had a significant role in this regard. This pandemic was in fact an opportunity for Iran’s society to see how religious motives and faith can build bottom-up jihadi movements to support health workers and policymakers in crises. 

An untold story about fighting COVID-19 pandemic in Iran
 
Figure 1. Mohammad Maddah, an Iranian clergyman, is mourning the death of his wife pregnant with twins. 
 

A day after burying his family, he returned to that same hospital as a voluntary clerical group member helping staff and patients fight COVID-19. This photo was captured when he tried to disappear for a moment and grieve before returning to work. This story exemplifies Iran's experience with COVID-19 and namely its community-based movements. 
Figure 2 shows another example where jihadi movements and voluntary clergymen are disinfecting public sites, streets, and shopping malls. This was mainly mobilized by the Basij, a community-based organization supported by the government (Figure 2). 


An untold story about fighting COVID-19 pandemic in Iran 
Figure 2. Daily disinfection of Tehran's streets by public staff and volunteers

While Iran was  one of the earliest countries hit by this virus, (South Korea and China), it also unparallelly suffered from  (a) unprecedented US-led sanctions on all economic and medical aspects, (b) considerably lower per capita health facilities and human resources, and (c) very limited knowledge about the behavior of the virus in the early phases Interestingly, Iran achieved this not by merely a top-down approach, strict quarantines, overreliance on the professional health system and/or forceful policy actions, but a nuanced model was in place which has largely been built on public, community-based, voluntary, and jihadi movements. 

For example, while the government never forced-quarantined its citizens  at home, there was a Stay at Home to Save Lives Campaign which has gradually improved the public awareness and voluntary self-quarantines. As widely discussed, Iranians have not been panic-buying during COVID-19 either. The country was able to maintain a good supply of commodities during the COVID-19 pandemic, including toilet rolls, with no large queues for food and washing liquids. And although Iran did experience a shortage of face masks and hand sanitizers, that experience was very comparable to America and Europe. 

An example of how communities and science worked together to advance policies related to COVID-19 is the public movement by volunteers to sew masks and dresses for both the medical community and ordinary citizens soon after the shortage began (Figure 3). 


An untold story about fighting COVID-19 pandemic in Iran 
Figure 3. A voluntary workshop held up in Yazd to sew masks for the public and medical staff combatting COVID-19

In all, Iran was able to showcase a consistency between religion on one side and science and policy on the other in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. For religion, even a leading role could be argued. 

The authors:
Reza Khanzadeh
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Ali Maleki
Sharif Policy Research Institute (SPRI), Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran
Najmoddin Yazdi
Sharif Policy Research Institute (SPRI), Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran

News Code 173642

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