Will Iran’s “Smart” Social Distancing Plan Prove an Elixir?Alireza Hashemi
After a week of extended holidays, Iran on Saturday joined Spain, Denmark, Austria and several other countries to ease some public restrictions aimed to help counter the COVID-19 outbreak.
President Hassan Rouhani has announced the implementation of a “smart” social distancing plan, a localized version of principles formulated by the World Health Organization that aims to gradually restore economic life in the country.
The government allowed low-risk businesses outside of Tehran, including many shops, factories and workshops, to reopen on Saturday. Government agencies outside the Iranian capital also resumed work.
In Tehran, businesses and government agencies will be allowed to reopen next Saturday. On Sunday, the government also eased restrictions on travel within a province. Travel between provinces will be allowed from April 20.
High-risk businesses, including theaters and restaurants, would remain closed. The closure of schools and universities, as well as a ban on cultural, religious and sports gatherings, will remain in place until further notice.
The contagion has hit Iran harder than any other Middle East nation, leaving over four thousand Iranians dead and more than seventy thousand sick. Iran has a seen a downward trend in the number of coronavirus patients in recent days, but health officials are worried if things are really becoming better. Reportedly, the Health Ministry has warned the outbreak could hardly be controlled without coronavirus-related restrictions, but President Hassan Rouhani has insisted on finishing the restrictions.
The government’s decision has met with widespread criticism from citizens and local officials who fear a rebound of the outbreak. Chairman of Tehran City Council Mohsen Hashemi cautioned on Sunday that reopening businesses will lead to a second wave of the pandemic in Tehran.
But the government has its own line of reasoning.
Rejecting accusations that the government is putting businesses before people’s lives, Rouhani has pointed that the government has to balance out economic and health concerns.
Already burdened by unrestrained US sanctions that have deprived Iran of much of its oil revenues and hindered access to foreign currency reserves, the government feels inclined to unlock the battered economy at any costs.
In Rouhani’s own words, Iran has to battle a “sanctions virus” concurrent with the coronavirus. According to government spokesman Ali Rabiei, over 4 million non-state employees could be out of work in case lockdown measures remain in place for too long.
After all, the government was initially reluctant to impose strict quarantine measures for the very same reason, and it took weeks for President Hassan Rouhani to implement a partial lockdown to combat the deadly respiratory illness.
Make or Break Moment
The government appears to be doing its best to prevent a new surge of infections. Rouhani has asked the nation to follow social distancing guidelines and general hygiene rules published by the Health Ministry, warning that the plan would fail unless people play by the rules.
The government has urged people in big cities to use their own cars or taxis instead of public transport, while easing traffic zone restrictions to facilitate movement of private vehicles. Notably, taxis in Tehran have been ordered to accept three passengers per trip. Separately, special signs encouraging social distancing have been installed in metro wagons and buses.
Working hours have been modified to limit exposure to the virus and government offices are to operate with two-thirds of workers. The Health Ministry has announced social distancing measures will be coupled with increased testing and isolation of high-risk people to ensure a smooth implementation of the plan.
However, various experts have warned that a lack of adequate preparations might bring severe human repercussions. Health officials have said 10-14 days are needed for the plan to be evaluated and revised as necessary.
Anyway, Iran’s battle against COVID-19 appears far from over.
A glimmer of hope is that Iranians have witnessed numerous critical situations throughout the years and therefore are able to adapt quickly to such conditions. he country endured a destructive war in its modern history, the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and managed to rebuild itself afterwards.
A strong sense of resilience and solidarity among the ancient nation could be of big help in the fight against the outbreak.