Iran on Monday began opening intercity highways and major shopping centres to stimulate its sanctions-choked economy, gambling it has brought its coronavirus outbreak under control.
Stores from high-end malls to the meandering alleyways of Tehran’s historic Grand Bazaar opened their doors, though the government limited working hours until 6pm. However, restaurants, gyms and other locations remain closed.
There are still lingering questions over Iran’s outbreak and the safety of those returning to work. Taxi drivers partitioned their seats from customers with plastic shields and wore masks, having seen colleagues sickened and killed by the virus.
“We, the taxi drivers, are at the highest risk than anybody else because we are constantly in touch with people,” cab driver Nemat Hassanzadeh said.
“Despite that, we have no choice but to work because we cannot afford to sleep at home and not to work with these high prices … I am a tenant and need the money to pay the monthly rent and also pay off my car loan.”
Iran’s outbreak has killed more than 5,000 people with 80,000 reported cases. Deaths and new cases continue to be reported.
Iran downplayed the crisis for weeks, even as top officials found themselves sick. The country’s civilian government, led by President Hassan Rouhani, has declined to implement the 24-hour lockdowns seen in other Middle Eastern nations.
Authorities have defended their response by pointing to the harsh economic impact such a lockdown would have.
Iran already struggles under severe US sanctions blocking the sale of its crude oil abroad, measures imposed after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.
Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said his country would soon start exporting ventilators to the rest of the world.
Zarif said the United States should stop interfering in the affairs of other nations, in particular Iran.
In a Sunday tweet, Zarif wrote, “Iran will be EXPORTING ventilators in a few months, @realdonaldtrump. All you need to do is stop interfering in the affairs of other nations; mine especially.”
Trump said on Saturday he would be willing to send ventilators to Iran to help treat coronavirus patients.
Iran will be EXPORTING ventilators in a few months, @realdonaldtrump.
All you need to do is stop interfering in the affairs of other nations; mine especially.
And believe me, we do not take advice from ANY American politician.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) April 19, 2020
The state-owned polling centre ISPA found the virus has harmed the incomes of 50 percent of those surveyed, with 42 percent of Iranians saying their businesses closed as a result. Of those polled this month, 13.5 percent said the outbreak left them jobless.
Iran‘s economy suffered from a more than 20 percent unemployment rate among its youth and 40 percent inflation, even before the outbreak.
Ali Reza Zali, who is leading the campaign against the outbreak in Tehran, warned reopening businesses may spread the infection, Iranian media reported.
“The significant point is that more commuting, especially through public transportation, adds to the possibility of contracting” the virus, he said.
Mosques and shrines remain closed after earlier being suspected of being a transmission source for the virus. That is as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan is due to begin later this week, based on the sighting of the crescent moon.
Rouhani said some sites will likely open on May 4, about 10 days into the fasting month. But Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, has already suggested mass gatherings may be barred throughout Ramadan because of the virus.