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.

The quarantine measures that Iran has rejected are imperfect, and they would stigmatize Qom unfairly. But the current situation of what appears to be virtually uncontrolled pathogen spread is accelerating the pandemic, and right now the most valuable commodity is time—time to stockpile medicine, improve diagnosis and treatment, and teach the world how to react to a plague that may kill millions. The quarantine in China seems to be buying us time. The lack of one in Iran is spending it away…

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.