Vietnamese woman in Iran opens windows to a coronavirus-laced existence

By Phan Duong   March 11, 2020 | 12:17 am PT
Do Lenh Hoai Anh, 27, always keeps the windows of her apartment in Felestin Street closed to avoid noise from the busy neighborhood.

Last week, though, she opened them and hung curtains. There’s no noise to keep out now.

"I have looked out of the window five times this morning. There were some cars, no pedestrians," Hoai Anh said, describing the street where she lives, one of the busiest areas in the Iranian city of Qazvin.

Hoai Anh had received a scholarship from the Iranian government five years ago and now lives in the northwestern city of Qazvin, surrounded by desert. The city has less than 400,000 habitants.

The street where Hoai Anh lives on March 4, 2020. Photo courtesy of Do Lenh Hoai Anh.

The street where Hoai Anh lives on March 4, 2020. Photo courtesy of Do Lenh Hoai Anh.

After spending the Lunar New Year holiday (January 23-29) in Vietnam with her husband, Amir Hossein, she returned to Iran. A day later, Hoai Anh developed a fever.

With the novel coronavirus outbreak raging in China, she had been worried about catching the infection as they transited in Moscow, Russia. So she rushed to the hospital and asked to be tested. Having no testing kits, Qazvin’s medical authorities advised her to quarantine herself.

"One day later, the fever disappeared. I think I’d just got a cold," she recalled, adding that she had asked her husband to stay with his parents to prevent him from contracting anything.

Over the years, Hoai Anh has faced numerous difficulties living in a country in relative tumult, heavily sanctioned by the U.S. and its allies. On the morning of January 8, when a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers crashed near Tehran, she was about to get on her plane and return to Iran to see her husband. Trading in Iranian specialities, she travels frequently between Iran and Vietnam.

This was another kind of upheaval, though, as the novel coronavirus found it way to Iran. On January 19, the number of infections had climbed swiftly to 2,500 and around 100 people had died, making Iran the fourth worst country hit by the outbreak. Moreover, the fatality rate in Iran was much higher than the worldwide average.

Qazvin City, where Hoai Anh lives, is 240 kilometers from the city of Qom and 150 kilometers from capital Tehran, both Covid-19 hubs. Last week, Qazvin had its first infection. To date, more than ten acquaintances of Hoai Anh have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Hoai Anh and Amir don masks while laying over in Moscow, Russia on February 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of Do Lenh Hoai Anh.

Hoai Anh and Amir Hossein wear masks as they transit in Moscow, Russia on February 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of Hoai Anh.

"A neighbor went out to buy some vegetables and tested positive five days later. My husband’s cousin, who went on a pilgrimage to Qom, also tested positive," Hoai Anh said.

Worried, she did consider flying to Vietnam, but the cheapest ticket was VND200 million ($8.574), while the regular price for return ticket was just VND20 million ($857). She checked a day later and there was no ticket left.

The only Vietnamese living in Qazvin, far away from her motherland, Hoai Anh knew she had no option but to confine herself to her apartment.

"They all fell sick because of the cold weather, walking around the streets or going to the hospital for tests," she said, referring to the outbreak in Iran. According to the Iranian government, 80 percent of infections were of people staying in the country, where it is always cold and dry from January to March.

Knowing the battle against the novel coronavirus would last long, Hoai Anh and her husband went to the supermarket last weekend and bought foods to stock up for a long time.

Locals had not started stockpiling so shelves in supermarkets were not empty. However, there was no mask or hand sanitizers left. Just 10 days earlier, people were indifferent. Now, the fear is palpable. Kisses and handshakes, normal gestures, have become taboo.

Amir Hossein, Hoai Anh’s husband, said he’d never seen the streets in his hometown this quiet since he was born. A week before Nowruz, the Iranian New Year (March 20-23), there was none of the usual hustle and bustle.

Companies, stores and schools have closed, although local authorities have not issued any order. Amir has resorted to remote work in the last few weeks. The only trip he makes these days is to his parents’ house, which is 50 meters away.

On March 5, Hoai Anh woke up at 10 a.m. and read dozens of messages from clients and staff. In the flood of messages, there are always two she looks for and never misses. The first is from the Iranian medical authority, and the second one from the Vietnam Embassy in Iran.

According to the embassy, there are 13 Vietnamese, apart from its staff members, living in Iran. Most of them are Vietnamese women with Iranian husbands who have decided stay on and wait the outbreak out.

"Ever since there were signs of the outbreak, we have kept people updated about new developments and suggestions from local authorities about measures to prevent the Covid-19," said a representative of the Vietnam Embassy, adding that it stands ready to support citizens.

As of Wednesday, Iran's death toll was 291, and 8,042 have been infected across the country.

It is difficult for Iranians to give up the pleasure of meeting family and friends, which they do now because of Covid-19.

"Iranians will get used to not going out. But they are annoyed because they cannot meet people during Nowruz," Hossein said.

For themselves, Hoai Anh and her husband are staying put at home, knowing that they are fighting a long-lasting fight.

After days of having just soup, the couple are craving some grilled lamb, but they are resisting the urge to use food delivery services.

Hoai Anh said she’s okay with the situation for the time being. "We have to survive this epidemic, then we will see."

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