Last week, I proposed that Iran’s coronavirus problem is much greater than commonly acknowledged, and that the true number of cases is perhaps hundreds of times greater than the official number. More signs of uncontrolled infection have emerged, and I fear I was optimistic. On Wednesday, Bahrain evacuated 165 of its citizens from Iran; 77 of them tested positive for the coronavirus. The Washington Post reported that satellite photographs showed a great furrow dug into a cemetery in Qom, reportedly to bury huge numbers of COVID-19 victims who had died already in that city. Other areas of Iran complained that they had run out of cemetery space, and that their numbers (then in the hundreds) were so great that they swamped the official national total, which even a week later is a mere 853. In Islam, bodies must be buried promptly and, in general, alone. You cannot bury two people together unless they are close family. One Iranian reported to me that the deaths were coming so fast that the survivors were requesting special dispensation to break this rule.
The economist Tyler Cowen asks, impishly, whether we should in fact be relieved, because apparently even when a society faces unrelenting misery—accelerated by the policies of its government—it doesn’t necessarily break down. Iran hasn’t turned into a criminal wasteland, with gangs in tricked-out, armored Paykans looting toilet paper and ventilators. In fact, it looks like Iranians have, like some Chinese before them, spawned informal systems of order, with roadblocks going up to prevent people from Tehran from fleeing to the countryside and bringing the disease with them. These efforts at containment have failed, but they were not forms of disorder, and most evidence suggests that when the plague abates, Iranians will have many things to mourn, but the irreversible disintegration of their society will not be among them.