Corona Affairs, Iranian Style

March 29, 2020

On Friday, March 20, I called my father to congratulate him on the Persian New Year. It felt gloomy, to put it mildly. We used to do it in person, shaking hands, hugging, and the three traditional kisses on the cheeks. As we are in self-quarantine, 300 miles away from each other, he acquired his very first smartphone just a week ago, rapidly catching up with technology to keep in touch with me. I watched him as he tried to turn on the selfie camera. He kept the phone so close that I could only see him with difficulty. But I could observe parts of him that usually go unnoticed: details of the wrinkles on his face, the tears he was struggling to hold back, a bruise on his left cheek, speckles I hadn’t seen before. We talked for a while, five minutes maybe, the longest routine call we had in years, and then we retreated into solitude, each into his own. The whole episode reminded me of stories of families torn apart by immigration. We are now torn apart by another, equally invisible force.

This invisible force, otherwise known as COVID-19, intruded into our lives in pretty much the same way it did into the lives of countless other people elsewhere. Except, perhaps, the context. For us Iranians, the disease came as the culmination of a long streak of unfortunate events, which inflicted upon many here a deep sense of helplessness. It began with protests over sudden fuel price increase last November, followed by ten days of total internet shutdown and a brutal crackdown of protests, then a near-war experience after the assassination of a powerful Iranian commander in Iraq, and then finally the downing of a civilian airliner in early January. What made the epidemic worse was the government’s haphazard managerial style, to put it kindly. It felt as though the universe itself had determined to test our limits. And, as if taking the clue, we felt compelled to demonstrate our resilience. After all, we have been on survival mode for almost as long as have been around.

Not everyone has survived, though. Many have lost their dear ones to the virus, which has not only taken lives, but made the mourning all the more traumatic for the survivors. Mourning used to be different. Surrounded by friends and relatives, mourners could find friendly faces around them and open arms to cry their sorrows out.  In our burial tradition, relatives would carry the coffin to the grave on their shoulders, and two of the closest persons to the deceased would descend into the grave to receive the body and entrust it to the earth. Such things are no longer an option. The virus has disrupted not only our lives, but also our deaths.

The disruption, however, uncomfortable as it certainly is, has brought forth new images of compassion and caring: an infected doctor on IV therapy still visiting patients, some of them in their final, dying stage (the brave doctor, Shirin Rouhanirad, has died meanwhile); overworked nurses taking a nap, fully equipped, on the benches of their hospital, after long hours of work; retired medical workers returning to their previous jobs; conscripted soldiers with medical skills asking to be deployed into hospitals. Those not on the front line have also tried to contribute, materially or otherwise. Some on the social media have come up with the “My Profession for Free” hashtag to offer their remote services to home-staying people. Many users have shared tricks to alleviate boredom, including lists of movies and books available for free on Persian websites. (The Iranian Ministry of Communications ordered ISPs to give 100 GBs of bandwidth, free of charge, to ADSL users to encourage home-staying.) Young people have also started exchanging tips on how to entertain their elderly parents and to keep them at home, a task that has proved more challenging than expected.

Ironically, the virus has also managed to improve our general way of life. We’ve started to care more about personal hygiene and healthy living. In the words of a witty twitter user, over the past two months, we have paid more attention to our hygiene and lifestyle than all other previous generations of Iranians combined. We have also learned how to practice social distancing. Many of us cancelled our holiday trips. Instead of the whole family gathering around the table to have the traditional rice and fish on the New Year’s Eve, we set up videoconferencing, dining together remotely. Also, we no longer receive cash gifts from our elders; we now have to give them our bank account numbers so that they can wire-transfer the money.

We have also applied another, universally valid device to counter the psychological effects of the pandemic: humor. We’ve learned how to laugh together — in isolation, of course — at imported jokes, memes, and funny videos. Thank you, world! We have also created our own, some of which have gone viral, and back to the world (you’re welcome!), yet most of which remain incomprehensible to outsiders. Let’s see if this one works, which has put smiles on the lips of many an Iranian: “Could you believe it if someone told you that the regime would close mosques and mass prayers, and indeed distribute alcohol to the people?” I live in an Armenian neighborhood of Tehran. Armenians are widely believed to be the main “dealers” in alcoholic beverages in Iran. A few nights ago, someone came to my door and gave me a bottle of alcohol saying: “Your Armenian neighbors would like to offer you this, which you may mix with water and use for disinfection; and don’t worry if you accidentally spray it on your food, it is not poisonous.”

We even have our own version of covidiots. A self-proclaimed “father of traditional medicine” has instructed us, among other things, to apply “a piece of cotton impregnated with Violet Flower oil” to our anus to avoid infection. In no time the suggestion became the subject of wide derision. He also wrote a letter to the ambassador of China in Iran, offering his services. Oddly, this time he had a different set of instructions: “Drip one drop of oil into each of nostril every night.” In yet another curious case, as you may have seen on YouTube, a few people started touching and kissing and licking the shrines of various saints in the belief that that would neutralize the effects of the virus. The authorities closed down the shrines and put them into custody.

Apart from changes that are hopefully temporary, we have also come to contemplate a transformation of some of our deepest convictions. The other day I asked my followers on Twitter the following question. Given the limited medical resources such as ICU beds and ventilators, what ethical criteria would you use to allocate the resources to patients: random drawing, “first come first served,” chances of survival, the patient’s possible usefulness to the society, the suffering their death would inflict on others, or market forces? You will be surprised to learn that a significant number of users voted for the first two options as the fairest selection criteria. Such a choice reveals their deep distrust in practices that have already brought about unacceptable inequality in other areas, suggesting that chance or destiny would be a better decider.

And yet we are destined to live and get through it, no matter the costs. There are things we all have to do once the pandemic is over. My nine-month old niece just learned how to sit down on her own. I haven’t seen her over the last two months, and I’m afraid she might have forgotten me, even though a psychologist reassured me, in a free consultation session, that I still have a good chance to be recognized as her sweet uncle. I also promised my grandma I would have a meal of her choice in her house, just as I am planning, with my friends, a post-corona barbecue on a Caspian Sea beach.

And I literally promised my father over the phone, as he was awkwardly learning how to use it, that we would resume our heated, face-to-face arguments very soon. Oh God, I miss the good old times.

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Mohammad Memarian is a translator and part-time journalist. He lives in Tehran.