Iranians have been suffering under sanctions and have been pummeled by the pandemic, but they aren't panicking.

The coronavirus outbreak now declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) has wreaked havoc across the world, infecting hundreds of thousands. 

Fears over the highly-contagious virus, COVID-19, and the necessity to keep social distancing as one of the main containment measures have made people flood to stores to buy supplies for self-quarantine. 

But, the high demand for non-perishable food items, toilet paper and hand sanitiser has made shoppers go crazy across many developed nations who are buying and stockpiling products.

“Since the first days of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, anti-bacterial gels, hand sanitiser, and toilet paper have become very rare. It’s the same for items like flour, rice, tinned foods and pasta,” Janet a British citizen and a mother of three living in Manchester told TRT World.    

The 58-year-old woman explained how she felt when she went to her usual chain store, only to be shocked by the empty shelves.

“[On March 18], I went out to buy milk and bread. None was available. All the shelves were empty. I really felt terrified. It’s like we are facing famine. I asked them when I should come that the shelves are not empty,” Janet said while adding that “they told me to join queues early in the morning because whatever they bring to the store sells out immediately!”  

The UK is, of course, not the only country where people frantically bought supplies. Similar scenes from stores in the US and Australia, and among other mostly developed nations went viral over the internet, with Australian shops witnessing a mad rush especially for toilet paper.

Not in Iran  

Things, however, were different in Iran, despite the fact that the country, along with Italy, is a major coronavirus hotspot outside mainland China where the virus first emerged late last year. 

At the time of writing this report, the Iranian Health Ministry put the total number of coronavirus infections at 18,407 and fatalities at 1,284. 

Like people in other countries, Iranians have been advised to self-quarantine and maintain social distancing to help contain the epidemic, although there has been no nationwide lockdown like the one currently in place in Italy.

Empty shelves in a supermarket in London, Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Empty shelves in a supermarket in London, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP)

The timing of the pandemic could not have been any worse as the peak of the outbreak in Iran has coincided with Nowruz – the Persian New Year which marks the beginning of spring – and its two-weeks holiday when Iranians pay visits to relatives and friends, and travel to other cities. 

Traditionally, Iranians will spring clean and buy special foods and cookies. However, shops have seen no mad rush, “with people shopping just like any other time,” according to Fahimeh, a 39-year-old citizen of the capital Tehran, who described the situation she recently witnessed at one of the major Iranian chain stores.

This year, many Iranians are avoiding the customary Nowruz visits and trips to maintain self-quarantine. Traffic is low compared to previous years. But, as long as the scale of the coronavirus crisis in Iran is concerned, the number of both intra and inter-city trips have been high enough to raise concerns about the further spread of the disease. 

With many businesses closed, concerns are high among many about their livelihoods at a time when economic conditions were already tough for them, because of a troubled economy which officials blame on US sanctions.

With Iran being under rounds of harsh sanctions as part of Washington “maximum pressure” against Tehran and the country’s ailing economy on one side and the closure of neighbouring borders in late February on the other, it was fair to expect not only a similar but an even more intense run on supplies by Iranians.

But what actually happened was quite the opposite. The situation was so normal that it apparently even surprised Rob Macaire, the British Ambassador to Iran. 

On March 14, he tweeted a photo of availability of toilet papers inside one of the shops in Tehran saying "Shopping today in Tehran. In case you were worried..."

Mostafa, another Tehran resident, 37, who just went shopping on March 15 had the same view and emphasised that, “there’s no need to panic.” 

In response to TRT World’s question on why he isn't stockpiling items, he said, “there’s no reason for stockpiling because it’s of no use. I think there is and there will be no shortage of basic goods.” 

In response to the same question, Fariba, a 55-year-old woman living in the historical city of Isfahan told TRT World that her family buys the things they need every ten days in order to avoid going out and to maintain their self-quarantine. 

However, she added, they refuse to stockpile supplies especially much-consumed items “for the sake of other people who need them too.” 

“Iranians are experienced”   

We spoke with prominent Iranian sociologist Taghi Azadarmaki about why people in his country, unlike developed states such as the US and Australia, have not rushed to stores even as Iran is faces decades-long sanctions that have reached an “unprecedented” level and even targeted food imports to the country. 

“The Iranian people have faced a variety of incidents for more than 40 years now and those exposed to difficulties become experienced and their reactions can be predicted and managed. But, in Western societies like the US and Australia - where things are usually normal - when a sudden shock like a possible war or something like the coronavirus outbreak happens, people react quickly and do not think of others.”

In this Tuesday, March 17, 2020, photo, people walk through the mostly closed Tehran's Grand Bazaar, Iran. The new coronavirus ravaging Iran is cutting into celebrations marking the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz.
In this Tuesday, March 17, 2020, photo, people walk through the mostly closed Tehran's Grand Bazaar, Iran. The new coronavirus ravaging Iran is cutting into celebrations marking the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz. (AP)

And that might there's been a lot of positivity, at least online. Circulated messages on social media including videos and texts are mainly positive content that attempts to keep the public's spirits lifted. There are videos offering trainings on how to make crafts, cook bread at home, make home-made masks, etc. 

A lot of social media content also focuses on encouraging people to stay home to help stop the spread of the virus. 

Students have been taking school lessons online and through teachings aired on state TV. 

Family vs. individuals

To further explain why Iranians and Westerners have reacted differently to coronavirus concerns, Azadarmaki drew a comparison between Iranian and Western societies which he believes have major structural differences.

“People in Western states tend to live an isolated life in an extreme way and everybody lives independently from their relatives and family. Therefore, all the people including all the members of a family rush to buy the stuff they need. But, social life in Iran is different. Although the tendency to live an isolated life has already emerged in the country, we still see a family dealing with issues like shopping, with the father - not all the members - taking the role and doing the shopping routinely.”

Azadarmaki, who is also a professor at the University of Tehran, said family-based social life in Iran has even expanded its role to other aspects including the process of offering services and alleviating public concerns. 

 “In Western states, big companies usually offer goods and services to people, but in Iran retailers and small shops are still more active than large companies. Such retailers and groups most of the time belong to one family or their relatives. This makes people feel less worried to meet their demands,” he said. 

“Social, economic and even political life in Iran can be explained on a family-based view, while in Western societies it is based on individuals. In Iran, families are involved in crises, but in the West, everybody is involved individually."