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COVID-19 Will Be A Big Topic In Iran's Upcoming Elections

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Iran, a medical study last year found nearly 1 in 5 people there had contracted the coronavirus. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been calling Iranians. He's been asking them about the pandemic and their government's response to it.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: When I spoke to her last August, Mitra, a farmer and gardener in northern Iran, said after initially downplaying the coronavirus, the government was finally taking it seriously. Like all those interviewed for this story, she asked that her family name not be used for fear of retribution from the authorities. But as the pandemic drags on into 2021, Mitra says things have changed. So many Iranians have contracted the virus and recovered, she says, including herself and her husband, that people seem to be treating it too casually.

MITRA: (Through interpreter) People who used to be scared in the past got much more relaxed after they actually got infected.

KENYON: And she says that means more gatherings and fewer people wearing masks. Another factor, she says, is that Iranians have grown so used to living under all kinds of pressure - economic, psychological - that, for many, the coronavirus is somewhere down the list of things to worry about.

MITRA: (Through interpreter) With all the psychological depression that they're experiencing, only death can be a bad news for them.

KENYON: For Mitra's husband, Amir, the pandemic has been economically crushing. He makes his living as a beekeeper and honey seller. But he says for almost an entire year, the business has been basically dead.

AMIR: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: "I can say, that in the first three months of it, there was extreme stagnancy. There were no customers at all, no business," he says, adding that later, mainly after the American election results were announced, people started to make decisions again and his business improved by about 10% to 20%. In Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city, architect Dawoud says three of his aunts contracted the virus and the youngest died in the hospital. He says government hospitals are essentially overwhelmed.

DAWOUD: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: "Officially, government hospitals aren't supposed to charge for their services," he says. "But because the nurses are under so much pressure with so many patients, my aunt was basically paying them under the table to take care of her." If the pandemic continues past the spring, Iranians wonder what that will mean for the presidential election slated for June. Iran's pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, has reached his two-term limit, and conservatives and hard-liners are eager to see one of their own take over the presidency. Dawoud says although Rouhani was elected with support from moderates and even reformers, he was never himself a moderate. And he grew more conservative while in office.

DAWOUD: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: "After Rouhani won a second term," he says, "we saw how he made a turn to the right. So me and the people around me who had supported him, we grew absolutely hopeless about seeing reforms here." Given Iran's tightly controlled election rules, with a panel of clerics choosing who's allowed to run, Mitra doesn't see much chance of finding anyone on the ballot she could support.

MITRA: (Through interpreter) No moderate or reformist can ever get through their filters of candidates.

KENYON: That kind of pessimism, along with the coronavirus pandemic, if it worsens, could lead many voters to stay away from the polls in June. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.