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Coronavirus Quashes Iran's New Year Celebrations


Friday was the first day of spring, which marks the start of the new year for Iranians. Norooz, which means new day, is the biggest holiday of the Iranian calendar. The celebrations last for almost two weeks. People have family gatherings. Some people even jump over bonfires. But this Norooz, Iran is in the grip of a major coronavirus outbreak. Ali Ahmadi, a foreign policy analyst, joins us on the line from Tehran. Thank you so much for being with us.

ALI AHMADI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is meant to be a time of hope and celebration, but these are hard times for Iranians, aren't they?

AHMADI: Yes. So we've had over 16,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. It's very much possible, as many public health officials inside and outside the country said, that it's actually significantly higher. When you see all that anxiety on with - from friends and family on Slack channels and WhatsApp groups, that's one thing. When you go outside, it's surprising the extent to which the street looks normal. It's definitely not normal. People are trying to stay in, but there is much more activity than you'd expect. Some of that is a bit deceptive because public transportation is essentially not being used right now. Iran has a decent subway system and buses that are - people do not really trust them right now, so they're driving in their cars. But it is - there are a lot more people out and about than one would expect.

SIMON: Are people not visiting each other at this time of year when families like to get together, do you think?

AHMADI: That's exactly what you do on Norooz - is you visit relatives. Families go to each other, extended - you visit extended family. There are definitely people still doing that, unfortunately.

SIMON: Mr. Ahmadi, you mentioned the health care crisis. How much of that crisis in one way or another might trace back to the world's sanctions?

AHMADI: A lot of it. I mean a lot of health care systems right now are under stress. Iran actually has a pretty good health care system. Its quality, its accessibility is very good. That may have created some of the initial overconfidence about being able to stop this thing. But the sanctions are absolutely a major factor. Iran, because of the sanctions, can't buy pharmaceuticals or medical devices like ventilators, so it's absolutely taking a huge toll, and it is definitely killing people.

SIMON: This has been a hard period for Iran in particular. You had the forces that shot down a passenger plane, protesters denouncing what they saw as a cover-up in a battered economy. It's the oldest question in journalism, but what's the mood on the streets?

AHMADI: Definitely not good, but people right now are just focusing on dealing with the coronavirus issue. So morale is certainly down, but nothing in particular is going to change - nothing in particular is going to be altered in the foreseeable future.

SIMON: May I ask, Mr. Ahmadi, how are you marking the holiday?

AHMADI: I am marking the holiday at home and completely by myself (laughter). I - my parents invited me to come to their house, and I told them that that's probably a bad idea in case, you know, I have it, and I'm not symptomatic. You know, my parents are a little bit older. And older people are a little bit more vulnerable to this thing.

SIMON: Do you have any wishes for the new year? Have you heard wishes from other Iranians?

AHMADI: I think people want to have a moment to take a breath. I'm sure they could do without, you know, the saber-rattling and the sanctions and all of that. But ultimately, I think people are - just want a moment with their families.

SIMON: Ali Ahmadi, foreign policy analyst speaking with us from Tehran. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

AHMADI: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN SHELLEY'S "OVER AND EVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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