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Officials In Iran Divided Over Coronavirus - Public Health Or Saving The Economy

President Hassan Rouhani reviewing health products in Tehran. He never wears a protective mask in public. April 5, 2020

The quandary facing Iran’s government regarding a lockdown to contain Covid-19 or resuming business activities continues in full-force, as President Hassan Rouhani and some of his ministers fear a long, drawn-out economic shutdown.

Following several days of speculations by the media and disputes among members of the government Rouhani announced on Sunday April 5 that "low-risk businesses" can resume their activities from April 11.

The exception is the densely populated capital where the coronavirus outbreak has claimed more lives. Rouhani said social distancing will continue in Tehran for an additional week until April 18.

On Saturday, most businesses opened and overcrowded public transportation raised the alarm for the widely feared second wave of COVID-19 outbreak some experts have mentioned. On Sunday also, main thoroughfares were packed with cars.

Rouhani has encouraged an early end to social distancing and the resumption of businesses possibly because of his administration's inability to pay the financial cost of continued lockdown.

Fifty economists have warned Rouhani in an open letter that with deteriorating economic conditions, widespread unrest cannot be ruled out later in the year.

Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said the scene at the Tehran subway was alarming. Meanwhile, Health Minister Saeed Namaki wrote a letter to Rouhani harshly criticizing the resumption of production in workshops and factories. He warned about the consequences of the early end to social distancing for the country's economy and health system.

Iran's state TV on Saturday showed workers and businessmen going to work in busy streets and overcrowded buses and subways. Several passengers told the state TV's news channel IRINN they had to start work to make ends meet as they do not expect receiving any help from the government.

Others, businessmen, said they have to take care of the financial affairs of their business. There are debts to be paid out, bills to be paid and payments to be made to others who desperately need them, they said.

Burial of the coronavirus victims.
Burial of the coronavirus victims.

The government had promised to pay wages to low-income workers for three months, but it later turned out that the payment will be made only to around 70,000 workers who benefitted from unemployment insurance arrangements. Many others including street vendors and peddlers have no social security or unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, those interviewed by the state-run IRINN said contrary to promises made by Rouhani and his ministers regarding discounts and deferments in payment of utility bills, state companies will add a fine to their bills if they fail to pay immediately. The banks also do not accept any delay in repayment of loans, they said.

Rouhani on Sunday also denied any disputes between his health and Industry ministers. But the health minister insisting to continue the lockdown and the industry minister eager to restart the economy was on full display in the media.

While the health minister has been complaining that masks and other protective items are not available even at hospitals, the industry minister claimed on live TV that there are millions of masks and other items available via his ministry.

Rouhani added that the administration is going to start "smart social distancing" but did not elaborate on what it means and what it entails for the society and the government.

While parents are concerned about the health of their children, Rouhani said that schools will open on April 19 and the exams will go ahead as planned. Many parents say on social media that they are not going to risk their children's health.

A few have said on social media that they would send their children to school only if all the 290 lawmakers go back to the parliament and seminary students and clerics also start their routine classes in Qom as a signal that the contagion is over.

In the meantime, the country's poor Internet infrastructure and some families' inability to provide computers at home hindered the idea of holding online classes. The state TV was to allocate a channel to distant learning but this has also not materialized properly.

In another sign of discord, while Rouhani spoke of "relative improvement" in the situation in parts of the country including Tehran, some officials, including deputy health minister Alireza Zali have implicitly denied his comment by saying that the epidemic is growing in Tehran.

Meanwhile, Zali who leads the fight against COVID-19 in the capital has warned against a renewed outbreak in Tehran. Deputy governor of Tehran, Shokrollah Hassanbeigi, has concurred that more patients have been hospitalized during recent days.

Meanwhile, the latest government report says 3,603 have died of COVID-19 in Iran and the number of those tested positive has risen to 58,226 as of Sunday morning.

An exclusive report by Radio Farda based on the statements made by local authorities puts the death toll in Iran at 6,282 until Sunday morning.