Opinion: Coronavirus isolation rekindles memories of hiding in Iran

We each experience the shelter-in-place directive differently because of our unique histories and circumstances

The recent Bay Area and California public health orders for residents to remain in their homes except for essential needs took me back 40 years to Tehran, Iran, and the Islamic Revolution.

Each of us is probably experiencing the shelter-in-place directive differently because of our individual histories and circumstances. For me, the order rekindles recollections of 1979-80, the Islamic Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

I had moved to Iran in 1964 after marrying a Iranian woman. In 1975, U.S. Ambassador Richard Helms asked me to be general manager of the U.S.-Iran Chamber of Commerce.

My office overlooked the U.S. embassy compound, and it was from the windows of that seventh-floor facility that I watched the Iranian-student attack on the embassy.  I escaped and went into hiding to avoid arrest, incarceration and possible torture in the infamous Evin Prison where political prisoners were kept.

During my isolation in Tehran, I didn’t know how long I would have to remain in the small condominium in which I was hiding before I would be imprisoned or a safe passage from Iran could be arranged. The incarceration continued for several weeks until the chamber secretary quietly worked out with the office of the prime minister a permit for me to leave the country early one morning by Swiss Air.

Similarly, the current stay-at-home order here in California is for an indefinite time; the actual length of partial isolation remains a mystery.

Like in Iran, the onset of night brings increased depression when cocooning. Seclusion seems to increase, and the blackness of night closes in. Dawn comes slowly, too often creating the feeling that nature is working against my psychological health.

The “stay-home” experience in Tehran occurred in late autumn; the current order is taking place in late spring.  Surprisingly, however, the weather in both instances has proved to be very similar, the mornings and evenings rather chilly, midday a little warmer. The brilliant stars helped reduce the fear and depression at night in Tehran. The persistent cloudy weather has added to the melancholy spirit in Walnut Creek.

The antagonists threatening my continued existence have differed considerably.  In Tehran, the adversary was one or a group of youthful revolutionaries with their guns at the ready.  My late-night encounter with just one such individual early in the revolution and prior to my need for insulating myself in the small condominium convinced me that arrest and imprisonment, probably even torture, was a real danger.

The current threat posed by COVID-19 can be even more lethal, certainly more extended, than a single gunshot wound and can result in long-term medical imprisonment.   It may require even greater diligence than that demanded by defense against revolutionaries. The complete nuances of the virus are yet to be discovered. According to health officers, every hour and social move count in avoiding the coronavirus and reducing its potential spread.

My self-imposed incarceration in Tehran was much easier for me than my current need to stay at home. I was in my early 40s and had much stronger resistance than I now have in my 80s.

I have reluctantly admitted that I am not as young as I once was and am at considerable risk for contracting the virus and perhaps even dying. I will obey the “stay at home” demand even though I long to be out and about.

Franklin T. Burroughs lived and worked in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon for 15 years and served as a liaison between the then-shah of Iran and President Jimmy Carter. He is a Walnut Creek resident.