Analysis

Iran Lifting Coronavirus Closure Is a Risky Bet for a Country on the Brink

The government has decided to start easing coronavirus measures to avoid further economic collapse, but with a popular revolt simmering, the biggest challenges may on the horizon

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A man wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against the new coronavirus walks past a grocery in northern Tehran, Iran, Saturday, April 4, 2020.
A man wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against the new coronavirus walks past a grocery in northern Tehran, Iran, Saturday, April 4, 2020. Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Iranian government permitted businesses and workers in the country's outlying areas to return to work on Saturday. On Tuesday, Tehran residents will be able to open their shops and stalls, and government employees will go back to their desks. Nevertheless, the coronavirus continues to rage.

The proposal to the Iranian parliament to extend the closure until April 19 was rejected by a large majority after Finance and Economic Affairs Minister Farhad Dejpasand reported that damage from the disease had cost the Iranian economy $20–30 billion, some 15% of its GDP.

Until about a week ago, the spread of the virus finally seemed to be under control. The number of infected people had been estimated at over 65,000, with 4,500 fatalities, according to official statistics (though few believe them). But last week saw another outbreak, apparently as a result of infection spread during Iranian New Year celebrations, which ended on April 4.

Volunteer women prepare fabric to sew bed sheets for hospitals, in a mosque in southern Tehran, Iran, April 5, 2020.
Volunteer women prepare fabric to sew bed sheets for hospitals, in a mosque in southern Tehran, Iran, April 5, 2020.Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP

Now it seems that the fear of further economic collapse outweighs the fear of the pandemic. Government funding is running out, to the point where even if the $5 billion loan Iran requested from the International Monetary Fund is approved, it will not be enough.

The government has declared the launch of an economic assistance program to provide about $60 a month to every needy person who is already receiving state subsidies. Businesses that did not lay off workers during the coronavirus crisis will be able to receive easy loans, at a 12% interest rate, of which 8% would be paid by the government and only 4% by the borrowers. Minimum wage was raised by 21%, to $113 a month. But all of these measures won’t be enough for the millions of unemployed and newly jobless Iranians.

The National Development Fund of Iran, which holds surplus income from oil exports and is intended to ensure Iran’s economic future, provided $1 billion for the purchase of medical equipment and assistance to public health facilities. At the same time, however, many private hospitals are laying off doctors and nurses because they are unable to pay salaries, as they haven’t received payments from insurance companies and national insurance.

A view of beds at a shopping mall, one of Iran's largest, which has been turned into a center to receive patients suffering from the coronavirus disease, in Tehran, Iran, April 4, 2020.
A view of beds at a shopping mall, one of Iran's largest, which has been turned into a center to receive patients suffering from the coronavirus disease, in Tehran, Iran, April 4, 2020.Credit: Reuters

At the Atieh Hospital in Tehran, about half of the staff of 1,200 have been laid off and the rest are receiving salaries for only 20 work days a month. Other hospitals are trying to persuade staff members to volunteer their services. The Health Ministry has hired some of the newly jobless medical personnel, but they are employed on three-month contracts, with no certainty that their contract will be renewed. The most severe damage – to the education system, public transport and tourism, which employ about half of Iran’s labor force – will be hard for the normal state budget to deal with.

The return to work is just one of the paradoxes of Iran’s war against the coronavirus. For example, harsh restrictions have been imposed on the use of private vehicles in big cities, but those have led to more people using public transportation and increased risk of infection.

Many mosques are closed and public prayer services cancelled, while at the same time, religious leaders last week called for the celebration of the birthday of the twelfth imam, the hidden Imam Mahdi, whom they believe will return to save the world.

The funeral of a victim who died after being infected with the new coronavirus, at a cemetery just outside Tehran, Iran, Monday, March 30, 2020.
The funeral of a victim who died after being infected with the new coronavirus, at a cemetery just outside Tehran, Iran, Monday, March 30, 2020.Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

The funerals of the thousands of coronavirus victims pose another religious issue. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei has instructed that the deceased not be washed, but rather wrapped in a burial shroud over their clothing and then in strong nylon before they are placed in a body bag and in a coffin. They are then to be buried four meters underground after the grave has been chemically disinfected.

Mourners are not allowed to come near the grave, and the ropes that are used to lower the casket, together with the deceased’s possessions, are to be burned. Beyond the compromise with tradition, this is a tiring procedure that requires the entire family to coordinate burial with the Revolutionary Guards, because groups of volunteers (the Basij) under their command are responsible for the process. According to reports from Iran, burials sometimes take place many days after the person has died, during which time families remain in the vicinity of the deceased and at risk of infection. But they are then not allowed to take part in the funeral ceremony itself.

Even before the implications of Iran’s exit strategy from the pandemic are clear, Iran needs an estimated 35,000 hospital beds, about 15,000 respirators and some 7,000 intensive care units. The return to work, the reopening of malls and lifting of transportation restrictions could double or triple these needs.

Iran has reported that it has begun producing respirators on its own and performing trials for vaccines purchased from China. But clearly, at least in the short run, Tehran will need massive financial and medical aid, which it will have trouble receiving while sanctions against it continue.

Iran rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer of equipment, and the sanctions-bypassing mechanism it has established with European countries is not yet fully operational. More and more calls are being heard in the United States and Europe to lift or at least ease sanctions for humanitarian reasons, but the U.S. administration will probably not be willing to do so. The dispute persists in the administration between those who believe that now is precisely the time not to give in, to bring Iran to its knees, and those who believe that easing sanctions will serve U.S. policy interests.

It will be interesting to see how lifting closures and isolation effects public protest in Iran. So far, the coronavirus has frozen civil revolt and imprisoned the anger within people’s homes. Now it could break out in full force.

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