Charlatans and conspiracy theorists undermine Iranian scientists’ fight against pandemic

Few believe the accuracy of the Islamic Republic’s official coronavirus statistics.
Sunday 12/04/2020
Iranian folk figure  “Haji Firuz” wears a protective face mask, amid fear of coronavirus disease, as he walks at Tajrish bazar in Tehran, Iran. (AFP)
Make believe. Iranian folk figure “Haji Firuz” wears a protective face mask, amid fear of coronavirus disease, as he walks at Tajrish bazar in Tehran, Iran. (AFP)

In Iran, scientists must use precious time and efforts to compete with herbalists and charlatans in the struggle against the coronavirus. For the time being, the scientists appear to have the upper hand and reputable herbalists help the cause of science, but their combined effort is systematically undermined by charlatans and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s obscurantist propaganda.

Few believe the accuracy of the Islamic Republic’s official coronavirus statistics but, even if we take the numbers at face value, with 4,000 fatalities and 67,000 confirmed infections, Iran remains one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.

Turning the pandemic to profit, some herbalists were quick to offer cupping therapy, or drinking a mixture of thyme essential oil, lime juice and honey, among many other remedies, to cure the coronavirus patients. Clerical claimants of medical knowledge prescribe the “elixir of Imam Kazem,” which is a mixture of black myrobalan, Arabic gum and brown sugar. A certain Ayatollah Abbas Tabrizian, the self-proclaimed “father of traditional medicine,” who earned notoriety in January 2020 by publicly burning the standard medical textbook “Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine,” offered a remedy of his own: Application of violet essential oil to the rectum to prevent infection.

Terrified and desperate for a cure, some Iranians are now following these strange recommendations, but serious practitioners of traditional medicine are understandably disgusted by the shameless profiteering of the charlatans. Dr. Hossein Rezaei, dean of the Faculty of Iranian Medicine at Tehran University of Medical Sciences, openly admits there is no traditional cure for the coronavirus. “The Chinese are the most experienced in this regard, and there is no herbal or traditional medicine available to counter it,” he said at a recent press conference. Ali-Reza Qahroudi, head of the herbalists’ guild, went as far as warning the public against the promise of miracle cures for the coronavirus: “Don’t be deceived by online advertisement for herbal medicine for COVID-19. No reputable offers such cures.”

Saeed Eskandari, head of The Herbalists’ Association in Khorasan province, also condemns the use of the “elixir of Imam Kazim” and the like and begs the public to listen to the Health Ministry rather than to the profiteers of traditional medicine.

In the hour of need, moral support from the herbalists is important in the struggle against ignorance and profiteering and boosts the prestige of the Health Ministry and Iran’s extremely competent medical professionals. However, those same professionals face opposition from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

For the past ten years or so, Khamenei has been one of the strongest proponents of what he calls “Islamic” or “Iranian” science, oblivious to the fact that the achievements of Iranian scholars and scientists such as Abu Ali Sina and Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi lay the foundations of modern medicine. Science has no nationality or religion, yet Khamenei has tried to put herbalists and practitioners of modern medicine at odds with each other.

More recently, delving into conspiracy theories, Khamenei claimed the coronavirus is “specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians.” He also initially resisted President Hassan Rohani’s pleas to provide funding for the fight against the virus, but on April 6 reluctantly authorised the government to withdraw €1 billion ($1.08 billion) from Iran’s National Development Fund. Iran has also asked the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion to fight the coronavirus but the United States is expected to block the request.

Had Khamenei the same sense of responsibility of traditional and serious practitioners of medicine, he would extend support to Iranian doctors and health providers who need facts and funding instead of conspiracy theories.