Months ago Iran emerged as the first foreign epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic outside China, its health system overwhelmed, and came dangerously close to seeing much of its government wiped out, given the disease spread in parliament and among top leaders, including the country's vice president and aides to the Ayatollah.
It still ranks among the world's top in terms of death toll, at 4,357 killed out of a current total of 70,029 infections. But now Tehran's leaders fear the lasting impact of their collapsing economy could leave worse devastation, apparently.
President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday called for a slow re-opening of the economy, focused first on restoring "low-risk" economic activities across the country, state news IRNA reported.
Addressing a national coronavirus task force, Rouhani claimed the country was close to achieving “reliable conditions” for a restoration of relative normalcy in the country.
“If the cooperation and support of the people as well as the observance of restrictions and protocols continue with the same procedure that has been done so far, we can hope that we will gradually achieve reliable conditions in dealing with the coronavirus,” the Iranian president said.
It's as yet unclear precisely which businesses and activities constitute 'low risk'. This likely means small local retailers and markets, as well as potentially restaurants. It's unclear if this means major religious sites, such as at the Shia holy city of Qom.
Iran's PressTV reports that this soft opening of sorts will start this week in the countryside, and after another week in Tehran:
The government authorized the so-called low-risk businesses to resume activities across the country from Saturday with the exception of the capital Tehran, where they will restart from April 18.
“The honorable people [of Iran] should know that the implementation of smart social distancing [rules] is only for low-risk businesses, and in no way should it be considered that the virus and its epidemic have completely disappeared,” Rouhani underscored. “All health protocols must be taken seriously.”
Iran has consistently maintained that US-led sanctions have greatly exacerbated the spread of the disease in the country, making an adequate response impossible. Sanctions were already unleashing economic devastation and runaway inflation even before the oubtreak.
Iran's government spokesman Ali Rabeie was quoted in AFP as saying "in case of long-term shutdown, some 4 million people could be out of work." He added, "Four million non-state employees face stoppage or reduction in activities, reduction of salaries and expulsion.”
But the obvious question remains over whether this dangerous gamble of re-opening the country, even slowly, will be too early in terms of containing the outbreak. Tehran apparently thinks it's worth the risk if they are to survive economically.