Before we go further, watch this clip. This isn’t the vice president, it’s Iran’s health minister at a briefing a few days ago at which he reassured the public that they have the coronavirus outbreak under control. Shortly afterward he was diagnosed with coronavirus. You’re watching him here in the early throes of the disease, right in front of the media. It’s plays like a twisted joke about the sinister mendacity of authoritarian regimes — Baghdad Bob, the pandemic edition.
Today came news that Iran’s vice president, the highest-ranking woman in the government and a notorious member of the 1979 hostage-takers at the U.S. embassy, is also sick with COVID-19. Here she is yesterday at a cabinet meeting. Click the second image and you’ll find her about 10 feet away from the president, Rouhani, who’s wearing a white headdress:
معصومه ابتکار، معاون رییسجمهوری ایران، که تایید شده به ویروس کرونا مبتلا ست، طبق عکسهای منتشرشده، دیروز در جلسه هیات دولت شرکت داشته. از جمله حدود سه متر با خود رئیسجمهور حسن روحانی فاصله داشته. https://t.co/0Dixl1MFxN pic.twitter.com/cMmd26fslj
— Hadi Nili (@HadiNili) February 27, 2020
At least two members of parliament and several health officials have also come down with the disease. If that makes you feel schadenfreude, okay, but the hard truth is that these evil, stupid bastards are going to get oceans of people killed — here too — because the illusion of competence and control is more important to them than acknowledging the extent of the problem. Parliamentary elections were held six days ago, encouraging Iranians to congregate at polling places even while the disease was spreading. And regime leaders refuse to close the shrine at Qom to pilgrims, advising them not to go — but not forbidding it. Graeme Wood vividly imagines the scene in a piece at the Atlantic:
Pilgrims from a dozen countries converge on one small city. They stay in cramped hotels, using communal toilets and eating meals together. For their main ritual, they converge on the tomb of a woman, the sister of a holy man, and as they get closer, they feel with rising intensity grief over her death and the deaths of her kin. The grief is a commandment: Each tear, according to one tradition, will be transformed in the afterlife into a pearl, and an angel will compensate them for their tears with a bucket of pearls that will be signs of their devotion when they arrive at the gate of paradise. But for now the bodily fluids are flowing, wiped away occasionally by bare hands, and the crowd is getting denser. A metal cage surrounds the tomb itself, and when the weeping pilgrims reach it, they interlace their fingers with its bars, and many press their face against it, fogging up the shiny metal with their breath. Some linger for minutes, some for seconds. In a single day, many thousands pass through the same cramped space—breathing the same air, touching the same surfaces, trading new and exotic diseases.
It’s a playground for contagion. And because these are pilgrims, not locals, they take what they’ve acquired at Qom back with them to their home cities or home countries. The Times noted a few days ago that Iran is an especially dangerous place for the virus to prosper because it’s a world crossroads, with a “constant circulation of both Muslim pilgrims and itinerant workers” and close proximity to states like Iraq and Syria whose governments and health-care systems aren’t fully functioning. Even in comparatively stable Jordan, said one local doctor to the NYT, he hadn’t yet seen medical professionals wearing full protective suits. The situation is so explosive that the Saudis closed the Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina to foreigners today and banned pilgrims from the country.
Seth Frantzman surveys the scene:
Iran couldn’t have chosen a worse time in the Middle East to do this. Countries such as Iraq are beset by protests and uncertainty, with Iraq specifically lacking a new government and threatened by ISIS resurgence. The Gulf already has one crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and is economically on edge due to serving as a transport hub linked to global trade amid all this. China’s coronavirus has spooked markets, and Iran is adding to the disaster…
Unfortunately for the Gulf, Iraq, and other countries, Iran’s incubation is a threat to the world now. Its airlines, such as Mahan Air, have likely spread the virus to Lebanon and brought it from China. Mahan Air and other Iranian IRGC-linked firms have transported arms and operatives throughout the region. It wouldn’t be a surprise if a similar route enabled the virus to spread unchecked. The regime’s toxic blend of religion, militancy, and authoritarianism have come together in the worst possible way at the worst time in a fragile region.
The mortality rate right now in Iran from COVID-19 is 11 percent, much higher than the two percent or so reported by China. In all likelihood that’s because they’re lying about the denominator, not the numerator: There are probably many, many more cases of coronavirus already circulating in the population than Iran is willing to acknowledge and potentially many more beyond that that they truly don’t know about. It’s increasingly hard to distinguish the regime’s lies from its ignorance, notes Wood:
At some point, incompetence and evil become indistinguishable. I feel like we have passed this point several times in the past few years, and Iran’s leadership in particular keeps passing it over and over, like a Formula 1 car doing laps. Last month’s accidental downing of a civilian airliner exposed one form of fatal incompetence, followed by an abortive effort to cover it up. Iranians are understandably primed to wonder whether this disaster is similar, a tragedy of malign incompetence that is expanding beyond the government’s ability to contain…
Iranians are under immense stress already, from economic, political, and military pressure. They do not trust their government. The daily stress of worrying, literally every few minutes, whether you will accidentally kill yourself by picking your nose or opening a door may prove, additively, too much for a society to bear. Urging visits to Qom, I fear, is the reaction of a government that has at last recognized its own limitations and has, at some level, embraced the virus. These crazy reactions greatly increase the chances that you will soon embrace it too.
Remember, every patient is a vessel for the virus to travel. Normally it’s fine to celebrate the regime’s misfortune but in this case their misfortune is the Iranian public’s misfortune, and the region’s misfortune. And eventually our misfortune.
Ironically, it’s Israeli scientists who may save the day. Doctors there say they’ve developed a vaccine that may be ready within 90 days or so. Whether it’s effective or not is another question. Stay tuned.