Unity and resilience. These attributes, in a nutshell, encapsulate the effort of the Iranian people against the novel coronavirus during its first wave. The absence of Nowruz celebrations was unable to dispirit the public, and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President, Hassan Rouhani remained resolute in their commitment to overcome the daunting disease while marking the beginning of the Persian New Year.

Despite bearing the brunt of hardening US sanctions amidst the COVID-19 crisis, Iran was praised for adopting a coordinated approach to combat the virus. After concluding a technical support mission to Iran, the Regional Emergency Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region at the WHO remarked that the country’s policies were “evolving in the right direction.” Notwithstanding claims that Iranian authorities delayed their confrontation of COVID-19, political analyst Mr Mohammad Marandi asserts that the government acknowledged the existence of the virus, and acted promptly to fight it since the discovery of patient zero. Despite initially-circulated conspiracy theories of the virus being an American bioweapon, the rhetoric later changed owing to the efforts of Iran’s clergy, the armed forces and Iranian tech firms, amongst others.

The senior clergy actively dispelled religious fanatics and assisted authorities in enforcing limitations on rituals and funerals. For the first time since the 1979 revolution, the clerical establishment accepted, and also justified to the public, the closure of holy shrines, mosques, and seminaries, and the suspension of Friday sermons. Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, a senior cleric, commented that protecting one’s life and that of others took precedence over obligations such as daily prayers under the injunctions of Islam. Religious ceremonies for victims of COVID-19 also underwent a significant change.

The armed forces in Iran rushed to contain the outbreak. The Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics commenced the production of medical equipment and supplies. The Artesh moved to set up temporary field hospitals and decontaminate public spaces. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia mobilised their forces and formed special committees to perform door-to-door screenings, prevent hoarding of medical supplies, produce essential protective equipment, publish and circulate educational material regarding the pandemic, and control the movement of civilians.

An overview of the country’s efforts would be incomplete without commending the role played by knowledge-based and tech firms. These businesses have been actively engaged in the production of protective health products including testing kits, surgical masks, anti-bacterial fabrics, and disinfecting tunnels. Knowledge-based companies partnered up with research centres to explore treatments and vaccines for the virus. Academic institutions also stepped up, and the Tehran University of Medical Sciences offered financial support to researchers carrying out anti-COVID-19 projects at the university.

It is significant to highlight that after a decline in infection rates, the government progressively eased restrictions starting in April. Unfortunately, a spike in the spread of the disease has since been reported. It remains undeniable, however, that the country successfully dealt with the virus in its first phase, and strives to continue to do so through unity, hard work, and cooperation—lessons that Pakistan could benefit greatly from.

In juxtaposition to the strong communal dynamics displayed by its neighbour, Pakistan’s response to COVID-19 has remained divided. To the global community’s chagrin, some of the most prominent imams in Pakistan have defied containment measures and urged their devotees to do the same. Political parties have indulged in a continuous stream of point-scoring, and the life vs livelihood conundrum remains unresolved.

The silver lining in this crisis, perhaps, has been the role played by charitable organisations: from the distribution of food rations to the provision of life-saving services, various NGOs have been working tirelessly to combat the virus. The National University of Science and Technology (NUST) has had a major breakthrough and developed a diagnostic kit for COVID-19. The government, on its end, has initiated the Ehsaas Emergency Cash programme to reduce economic hardships for the vulnerable classes. The Prime Minister has earned praise for launching the Corona Relief Tiger Force. The Sehat Tahaffuz 1166 helpline centre has been expanded to support the COVID-19 response.

And yet, much remains unaccomplished in the fields of community engagement and sensitisation. The government must emphasise stakeholder mapping and collaborate with community leaders such as religious figures, women’s groups, and youth forums to develop implementable action plans; the significance of social mobilisation in improving health service delivery must be acknowledged. The government must also reconsider its priorities, as its decision to increase defence spending amidst the outbreak continues to be heavily challenged. For this pandemic is a painful reminder of the economic and social losses that health crises can cause, and how social cohesion can reduce these losses by leaps and bounds.

Note: This research was conducted by the CCLS and was supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF) Pakistan. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of LUMS or HSF.