Iranian clerics’ answer to the outbreak of the new Coronavirus COVID-19 has been a deadly blend of superstition, secrecy and denial amid serious concerns among the people.
The government says 19 people have dies and 139 others diagnosed with the virus. Many Iranians believe the official numbers are a deliberate underestimation, as officials first hid the news about the spread of the disease and then refused to establish quarantines and other measures to reduce risk to the public.
As a result, the general mood of Iranians is the feeling of being let down by the government which especially in the last three months is seen as ignoring every crisis and waiting for it to be overshadowed by the next calamity.
While the public has been openly demanding the closure of the holy shrine of Masoumeh in Qom out of concern of a dangerous epidemic, the shrine's superintendent, an elderly cleric named Mohammad Saeedi insists that people should visit the shrine to seek cure for Coronavirus.
Saeedi's office has said that the architecture of the shrine and its metal ornaments strongly protect everyone against viruses.
The Health Ministry shyly talked about the possibility of the shrine's closure to avoid the spread of the disease among hundreds of people who visit every day to seek solace, but the statement issued by the Ministry did not officially call for the shrine's closure fearing a backlash by the clerics.
IRGC Intelligence Chief Hossein Taeb has reportedly rejected the idea of delaying the February 21 parliamentary vote in Qom. A decision many believe further exacerbated the outbreak.
Qom is reportedly the city from where the virus spread to the rest of the country and beyond. Two women who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Lebanon had travelled from Qom to Beirut. Most of the deaths and cases officially confirmed center around Qom.
Some 700 Chinese Shiite clerics are said to be studying divinity in Qom. Chinese traders frequent the city, and about two weeks ago, an Iranian merchant who had recently travelled to China died in Qom as a result of contracting the Coronavirus.
President Hassan Rouhani who has said on live TV that the situation will be normal by Saturday, has ruled out imposing a quarantine on Qom at a meeting in Tehran on Wednesday, insisting that Corona is a Western conspiracy to shut down the economy in Iran.
Although Rouhani insists that schools and offices should be open and business should go on as usual from Saturday, many parents have said on social media that they are not going to send their children to school at least for some six weeks until the end of the Iranian New Year holidays in early April.
Rouhani said, "individuals may be quarantined, but declaring quarantine in a city or a neighborhood is out of question."
Rouhani appears to be in a state of denial about the virus in the same way it took him quite a long time to believe other shocks that overwhelmed everyone else during floods, earthquakes, major protests and the downing of a civilian aircraft with 176 on board.
His denial of the impact of the virus comes while some of his own administration's officials have been tested positive for the virus and his spokesperson who tested for the virus was missing at the cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
In the meantime, groups of people have been taking part in a ritualistic procession beating on huge drums and self-flagellating in a bid to ward off the virus. These kind of events usually take place at the direction and the backing of the clerical establishment.
A religious procession in Isfahan
Superstition is not coming just from among elderly clerics and men in the streets. A medical doctor who chairs the respiratory diseases ward at the Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran, said on live TV on Tuesday that she does not believe on using a mask or hygienic gel. She said she believes doctors are immune to the virus and she must have already got it and survived it.
Even if she is right, she did not say why her family members and everyone else she comes in contact with should share the germs that apparently do not affect her.
Iranians on social media have been speculating that if 7 people out of the 700 Kuwaiti pilgrims returning from Mashhad to Kuwait are tested positive for the virus, how can there not be anyone else inflicted in Iran's biggest holy city. Officials claim no one is infected in Mashhad.
In the meantime, many calls have been made for doing away with Friday Prayer gatherings and releasing prisoners and soldiers from crowded jails and garrisons to keep the people safe, but no one in the government has agreed to these.