The coronavirus pandemic that has spread across six continents, caused more than 7,000 deaths, and forced multiple countries to implement nationwide lockdowns has already spawned remarkable images, from the hazmat-suited municipal workers manning drive-through test centers in Seoul to the balcony acapellas of quarantined residents of Siena, Italy.
But the defining images from Qom, the early epicenter of Iran’s viral outbreak, might turn out to be footage of body bags lined up at one of the city’s morgues, or doctors without personal protective equipment tending to the sick. In interviews with TIME, staff on the front lines of the hardest-hit nation in the Middle East painted a bleak picture of a healthcare system in the throes of a crisis that threatens to overwhelm its capacity. While experts point to critical errors in Iran’s early handling of the highly infectious virus, its experience now — in terms of the high impact on healthcare systems and frontline workers — is already finding echoes around the world.
“My uncle, who is a doctor, called me in tears from his hospital saying that he can’t cope anymore,” a laboratory scientist working at one of five public hospitals in Qom, told TIME by phone on March 14. Protective gear was lacking during the first phase of the crisis, she said, “so much so that for the first week the doctors and nurses only used regular masks—no gloves, no gowns, nothing else.”