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Coronavirus: Iran to reopen shopping malls and bazaars despite pandemic fears

International officials will watch Tehran’s experiment closely

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Sunday 19 April 2020 18:25 BST
Iran prepare to re-open shopping malls amid Coronavirus pandemic

Iran’s leadership has forged ahead with a scheme to dramatically restart business activity while containing the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, a challenge that has vexed the west and other parts of the world.

President Hassan Rouhani announced on Sunday that the country would allow shopping malls and bazaars to reopen this week despite warnings by health officials that the country could squander strides made in containing Covid-19.

“We have some businesses that are medium-risk, not low-risk ones, like shops in roofed places, like bazaars, or shops in a complex beside each other, like at malls,” he said, speaking at a televised meeting of the national task force to fight coronavirus.

“We had considered them to be medium-risk from the beginning,” he said. “It has been decided that they will start their activities from [20 April] while observing all health protocols.”

International health experts will watch Iran’s attempts to resume normal life closely. It is the country hardest hit by coronavirus in the Middle East, with at least 5,118 people reportedly killed by Covid-19 and at least 82,000 confirmed infections that have led to quarantine measures and a shuttering of public and commercial life like those in the west.

But the shutdown of business activity has damaged an economy already in deep recession because of low oil prices, harsh United States sanctions, and persistent incompetence and corruption. “Social distancing in poor countries can cause death due to starvation, too,” said Nassim Assefi, a global health physician who has worked in Iran.

Iran finds itself facing the same pressures as leaders in much of the world, attempting to balance a growing clamour from the public to resume economic life with recommendations of health and public officials warning that while the peak of the pandemic had been reached, a resurgence of the virus is likely if social distancing measures were eased too soon.

“We are concerned about another outbreak in Tehran,” Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the capital’s municipal council, was quoted as saying.

Health experts have pointed to the resurgence of infections in Asian cities that may have lifted restrictions too early. “I think it’s premature,” said Arin Balalian, an epidemiologist of Iranian descent at Columbia University. “It carries a substantial risk for the disease to come back. You are going to have shoppers and labourers, and all of them are going to use public transport, which increases the risk of transmission.”

Some researchers caution that Iran’s actual numbers of dead and infected may be far higher than those promulgated by a government with a long track record of opacity and distortion.

But the rate of deaths officially reported has declined from about 125 or more per day to about 75 or 80, suggesting the country’s health system is managing to absorb the impact of the pandemic. Physicians inside the country have also noted an improvement in conditions at Iranian hospitals in recent weeks as authorities imposed stringent lockdown measures.

Iran’s economy is in shambles. It shrank an estimated 8.7 per cent last year, with the official unemployment rate expected to rise to 13.5 per cent this year. Thanks to US pressure, Iran has reportedly been denied a $5bn (£4bn) loan from the International Monetary Fund that it had requested, adding to pressure on Iranian authorities.

Iran began allowing what it described as low-risk businesses such as offices to reopen last weekend throughout the country and on Saturday in the capital Tehran, leading to massive traffic jams, large crowds in metro stations, and queues to apply for $238 (£190) loans offered by the government.

On Friday an Army Day parade was held, with officers maintaining social distancing measures as they marched in formation at a base in Tehran while displaying disinfectant trucks used to clean streets of potential coronavirus instead of tanks and jeeps.

Despite the partial reopening, the number of cases and deaths did not spike, according to officials. “Our assessment is that people cooperated with us and businessmen, too, observed the protocols, one of the signs of which is that we have not had an increase in the number of citizens infected,” Mr Rouhani said.

But Iranian and international health officials have warned that it could take up two weeks for a surge in cases to be detected, with many coronavirus carriers either asymptomatic or suffering from relatively mild symptoms while continuing to spread the airborne pathogen. “To get from exposure to symptoms takes four or five days,” said Ms Assefi. “You’re not going to see death rates or even severe infections for up to weeks after easing distancing.”

Nonetheless, Mr Rouhani was upbeat, urging business leaders to launch construction and development projects to increase employment and restart the economy.

Many coronavirus containment measures will remain in place. Schools will remain closed, with distance-learning in place; classes have been extended for an additional four to six weeks into the summer.

Mr Rouhani announced that all shops must close by 6pm and warned that the opening of businesses at malls, bazaars and shopping areas did not include gyms or restaurants, which he described as high risk.

“If there is a shopping mall with a high-risk business, for example, a restaurant or a teahouse, but people gather there, those high-risk businesses will be closed again,” he said. “They can do takeaway. But people cannot sit in restaurants and have food.”

Mr Rouhani said professional conferences, training workshops or academic seminars would continue to be banned, along with any kind of public gatherings whether for “happy or sad” occasions.

“This is a gradual move,” he said. “Any step we take the health practitioners will scrutinise them constantly. If they see a problem arising we will for sure reverse our decision.”

To contain the potential spread of coronavirus at prisons, Iran has also extended for at least a month a leave it has granted tens of thousands of detainees, including the British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The partial reopening of the country to commerce comes ahead of the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time of frequent religious gatherings, and festive iftar meals marking the end of daily dusk-to-dawn fasts. But Mr Rouhani announced a continued ban on religious gatherings, including group iftars, for at least the next two weeks.

“During Ramadan people go to the mosques more than usual,” he said. “We urge people to hold individual prayers rather than group ones. God will listen to people.”

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