Mostafa Sadeq

Quarantine has always been the society’s way of facing the expansion of disease. In each society, actions such as imprisoning the sick, closing the city gates shut or prohibiting the aliens from entering the city were of the primary methods of preventing and epidemic. According to historical accounts, the quarantine system was first introduced in 1374 in Venice in response to the plague. Later on, in 1383, it happened in the port of Marcie. Quarantine was also witnessed during the 17, 18 and 19 centuries in North America and Britain.

Given its geography, Iran has always been a womb for epidemic diseases. Being in the middle of land and maritime routes on one hand, and backwardness of the region’s states on the other, always threatened the health of the Iranians. Although the root of many diseases such as cholera and plague were China, Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Russia and the Persian Gulf are known as the entering gates of Iran for disease. The spread of disease in central cities created the need for the quarantine system.[1]

Cholera was the most common epidemic in Iran before the Qajar dynasty[2]. Its spread once a year or every two years, gave it the name of “Death Disease”.[3] The foreign causes of cholera notwithstanding, due to Iran’s mismanagement, it became an indigenous disease. The common feature of this disease was the incompetence of the Iranian government.

The plague was also a common epidemic of the past with Iran not being an exception. The disease combined with famine could eradicate almost one third of the nation at times. It could easily evacuate cities after cities of any living creature. The plague was so immense that even Albert Camus mentions its state in his renowned book, The Plague.

A hundred years ago, a plague killed every single citizen in an Iranian city but the mortician who did not stop working for a moment

Iran’s Mode of Operation during the Qajar dynasty was considerable. An MO which changed drastically after the constitutional revolution. The royal family’s first response was to deny the disease. Evasion and denial were the most common tool at the state’s disposal.[4] The next step was usually leaving the country. Even after the epidemic’s expansion, no real will was shaped to control the disease. Especially, given the lack of knowledge and capability to do so. Even at times that the spread of the disease was so much that it could not be denied, the government still did not approve quarantine.

Even after the deployment of quarantine, many problems arose. The royalty and the body of government used the situation to extort the public. Due to the never-ending nation-state conflict, the public themselves showed little or no cooperation with the government[5]. Many government’s suggestions were in contrast with their beliefs. Therefore, they usually evaded them. The reason behind this reaction was the lack of any mechanism for controlling the government’s absolute power. The Qajari kings got their power by force. Their position was secured due to the institution of plunderage. They were like alien invaders who took the throne by force. Therefore, the imbalance between the nation and the state was the common action. During the epidemies, the nation not only evaded the quarantine system, they also insisted on using traditional medicine and religious ceremonies for getting rid of the disease.          

Indeed, the constitutional movement in Iran did change the relationship between the nation and the state. A change which in itself was the result of changing beliefs, cultures and political relations. The previous mechanism lost its legitimacy with so many mismanaged crises and this was the beginning of new developments in Iran. That is why this era is called the era of beginnings. The common belief was that anything which washes misery away is progress and that is what the intellectuals offered the public. A bait that the public took.

Wherever freedom was not achieved, drought and natural diseases took a strong tole[6]. When people are unable to capture the political institutions inclusively, the diseases become inclusive. Basically, wherever the principle of social construct is damaged, more damage can be expected for the society. The health system as a social construct is the product of common sense and is a civil, social and handmade institution in its core. The same argument can be made for the government. Therefore, logic dictates that the public’s health is directly interconnected with its ability to design civil institutions.

It seems that with the spread of the COVID-19, there is room for re-reading the old arguments. Do the public still keep their fate in the hands of statesmen whose wisdom and altruism were rejected many times? What civil institutions are more efficient? What public elective structures are more suitable for such a health need? What societies, states and policies will win and which will lose? Are civil non-governmental institutions more efficient or is it a governmental arrangement – which roots in the strengthening of the established and controlled state – that can face this challenge? Does the concept of health improve only with centrality of power?

Short term answers for the short-term disease, made many to believe that fundamental thinking has no baring at this stage. Unaware that short-term answers are available only for those whose fundamental constructs are suitable. In other words, no answer can be based on anything but principles. No matter how much we hurry! We cannot change the rules of nature. Therefore, if the way of reaching a social answer is accepted in a society, then reaching consensus will not be much difficult. Especially since the principles themselves are building blocks of public agreement and pubic choice.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Iran’s government began a universal quarantine which later on invited the help of the army. After a while, many establishments in both the private sector and the public sector closed. Therefore, many lost their means of income. Many were day workers, getting paid by the hour and lost their income.

If those who get their income from the public budget are keen on quarantine, they must pay the price. They cannot stop the activity of others and yet they themselves get paid by the public budget. If they do not see themselves as equals in payment, then they must endure the risk of getting infected without quarantine. Indeed, the Common become common with common design and implementation. Everybody has equal rights as well as equal duties.

Cash benefits from the public budget are also worth thinking about. The size of the budget does affect the amount of per capita. Therefore, optimization becomes key. Transparency of resource management is also key. Equal per capita distribution reduces the possibility of corruption. Equality is a pillar of the Common during quarantine; hence discrimination needs to be justified. People might be unequal in terms of wealth and income, but they cannot differ in terms of benefiting from the public resources.

Since epidemic has the characteristics of the Common and the Social, response and resolve will also be based on the building blocks of the Common. Public and socialized danger begs the creation of social and public measures. Therefore, we will reach a public choice, right and duty. The right to a decision regarding the Common is for all. As a result, consensus can be reached with public participation and referendum.   

Public will’s measures of manifestation, detection and foundation such as representatives could also be fruitful for reaching a public choice. However, the credit of a democracy and representation is secondary to direct participation and referendum. It is only when direct participation is out of reach that we must go to representatives. Next will be participation in financing and building the way for public duty. Only those who lack the ability to participate are excused.

Inability to take on civil duties does not deprive them from participating in the process of decision making or from the benefits that are being distributed. In the end, all the public resources at the state’s disposal will be distributed using this public choice. On the other hand, all the members of the society are accountable to the public choice. Even the source of law is the same. Therefore, using the principles of freedom, equity and the right to decide one’s fate, the first building block of the answer will be at reach. Even knowledge and scientific inquiries are a public act. 

Reviewing the state’s approach at the current era suggests that the Iranian statesmen are still not following the necessities of public management. Measures based on the statesmen’s little knowledge and altruism will have as little effectiveness. In other words, the statesmen’s measures for treating the COVID-19 notwithstanding, we could see that their decisions and policies are not only far from public necessities; but are also far from the concept of good governance such as participation, transparency, accountability, general agreement, justice, effectiveness, efficiency and responsibility. Suggesting to stay at home but not closing the offices, not supporting the businesses properly but forcing them to close, not supporting the poor while prosecuting the violators of the protocols, delay in informing the public, resistance against quarantine, misleading statistics, paradoxical health suggestions and lack of public participation in decision making  have challenged the principles of good governance.

Mostafa Sadeq: He is the head of the Department of Law at the Social Security Organization for Research and also is a PhD candidate of International Economics at the Mofid University. His Research revolves around the concepts of state, power and method of managing the state’s power in Iran.

[1] Jafari, A. A., & Foroughi, N. (2015). Analysis of the Distribution of Cholera and Plague in Iran and its Impact on the Social Crisis during 1795-1847.

[2] Nateq, H. (1978). The Social and Economic Effects of Cholera During the Qajar Dynasty. History (Annex for the Journal of the Literature and Social Science Department. Vol 1, No 2.

[3] ibid

[4] Karimikhan-e-Zand, M. (2012). Iranian Medicine’s Encounter with the Cholera and Plague Epidemics in Qajar Iran in the 19th Century. Journal of Science History. 10(2), 93-126.

[5] Katouzian, H (2007). Iranian History and Politics: The Dialectic of State and Society, London and New York: Routledge, paperback edition; original edition, 2003.

[6] Sen, A. (2001). Development as freedom. Oxford Paperbacks.

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