Medics and martyrdom: Iran's dying doctors

Medics and martyrdom: Iran's dying doctors

Forty-three doctors and nurses have so far died fighting the virus in Iran's unmitigated national tragedy.
4 min read
03 April, 2020
Iran has recognised all doctors and nurses who have died fighting coronavirus as 'martyrs'. [Getty]
Nine days after reports of a coronavirus outbreak in the Shia holy city of Qom, spiritual leader Ali Khamanei appeared in a short video address to the ranks of Iran's healthcare workers, acknowledging their efforts in fighting the new virus and assuring them of divine bounty in return. 

"Your work is extremely valuable. Not only does it grant your field greater esteem among the masses, but it guarantees you a reward from God". 
Satellite images of trenches dug as mass graves painted a picture of what soon became an unmitigated national tragedy, a desperate battle in which those at the frontline were falling.  
Forced to console an agony whose scale could no longer be concealed, the country's ruling authorities declared that all slain doctors and nurses would be recognised as ''martyrs''.

Read more: Afghanistan: Asia's next coronavirus epicentre? 

Their families, like those from security services and armed forces, would receive payments and benefits from the state.
Forty-three doctors and nurses have so far died as a result of coronavirus-related illnesses, according to Kianoush Jahanpour, a spokesman for the Iranian health ministry.  
Tehran, Gilan and Mazandaran – provinces which have the country's highest rates of infection - are incidentally those which have seen the highest number of fatalities among medical staff. 


One medical university in the central Mazandaran city of Babol records a loss of nine doctors, many of whom had served lengthy careers as academic staff at the university.  
Brief reports of their passing, as well as feature-length obituaries, fill pages of local news coverage.  
State-run Rokna news agency describes the story of the Dr Mustafa Samadi, whose self-referral for complaints of a shortness of breath would be his final act of service as a GP.  
Dr Muzafar Rabi'i, a senior anaesthetist, who had once served as the director at Babol university, manned the hospital's overflowing wards before he himself succumbed to the illness, dying on the Persian new year.  
Jadwalyab pays tribute to the memory of Dr Farid Nerowee, described as a ''renowned'' and ''accomplished'' surgeon who had been recognised by the medical council of Babol, home to nearly half a million, as a distinguished physician


In an extraordinarily moving piece, state-owned IRIB carry the obituary of Mahdi Variji, the director of Tehran's 21st district health centre, one of eight doctors to have so far died in the hard-hit capital.  
A long-time friend and colleague of Variji is interviewed - a doctor now bed-ridden after suffering from severe complications following a Covid-19-infection.  
Between sparse breaths, he recalls his friend as ''one of the sincerest'' doctors he had known. Dr. Variji, a childhood orphan, had always felt a deep sense of empathy for the weak and vulnerable, his friend recounts, which drove his selfless passion leading the district health centre at the time of an unprecedented crisis. 

Trenches dug as mass graves painted a picture of what soon became an unmitigated national tragedy, a desperate battle in which those at the frontline were falling


In northern Gilan province, seven nurses, as well as nine doctors, have died so far, Radio Farda report. 

The severity of disease caused by the novel coronavirus disproportionately claims the lives of older people and those with existing illness, according to emerging global statistics.

Yet photos circulating of bright-faced Nargess Khanalizadeh, a 25-year old Gilan nurse, tragically and viscerally defy that trend.  
One image shows her answering the call of duty clad in a surgical mask and protective suit. This is juxtaposed by another, in which ventilator tubes deliver oxygen to her failing lungs.  
Zohre, who spoke to Andalou Agency, pays tribute to her friend. 
''She was always dedicated in everything she did. Even with high risk to her own life, she didn't skip her duty at the hospital'' 

Persistent conundrums 
Najmeh Bozorgmehr notes that Iran's medical system has been long considered one of the region's best, attracting patients from nearby countries.  
While the loss of life among highly specialised clinical professionals do not yet threaten its survival, fears are not unfounded. In the province of Kirman, 41 percent of healthcare workers have tested positive for the disease, according to Mehdi Hosseininnezhad, the region's governor for industry and trade.  
The root of the problem, according to Hosseinnezhad, is a critical lack of masks, hand sanitiser and gloves, compounded by US sanctions which have and continue to strangulate supply lines. 

Yet a separate, persistent conundrum also baffles health authorities: how can a clinical workforce operate effectively, and to optimal capacity, when it remains so vulnerable to infection itself, despite strict measures to limit exposure? 

A ray of hope

Amid the unrelenting storm of information flows in relation to the pandemic, martial rhetoric from the top has powerfully structured the language through which it is understood down below. 

Novel chauvinism has become the immune response to the novel virus. In every country, we are told that an army of doctors and nurses are fighting to save a national community from the unrelenting assault of a hidden enemy and Iran is no exception.

Yet in the Shia theocracy, when religious importance is bestowed on those fighting the virus, paying the ultimate sacrifice becomes a form of martyrdom.

As an editorial in local media source puts it: ''Their departure scares us.. After God, they are our only ray of hope.''

Kamal Afzali is a journalist at The New Arab

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