Iran opens up shopping centres despite having region's worst COVID-19 death toll
Ramadan fast approaching but it's not clear when, or if, mosques will be open during the holy month
Iran on Monday began opening intercity highways and major shopping centres to stimulate its sanctions-choked economy, gambling that it has brought under control its coronavirus outbreak — one of the worst in the world — even as some fear it could lead to a second wave of infections.
Stores from high-end malls to the meandering alleyways of Tehran's historic Grand Bazaar opened doors, though the government limited their working hours until 6 p.m. Restaurants, gyms and other businesses 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 the customers with plastic shields and wore masks, having seen colleagues sickened and killed by the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes.
"We, the taxi drivers, are at higher risk than anybody else because we are constantly in touch with people," cab driver Nemat Hassanzadeh said. "We have no choice but to work because we cannot afford to sleep at home and not to work with these high prices."
Iran is the Middle East's epicentre of the pandemic, and even its parliament has suggested the death toll is much larger than the official count, with overall cases remaining vastly underreported. Iranian state TV quoted Health Ministry spokesperson Kinoush Jahanpour as saying Monday that another 91 people died of the virus, bringing the country's death toll to 5,209 amid over 83,500 confirmed cases.
Iran downplayed the crisis for weeks, even as top officials found themselves sick with the virus. The country's civilian government, led by President Hassan Rouhani, has declined to implement the 24-hour lockdowns seen in other Mideast nations.
Authorities have defended their response by pointing out the harsh economic impact such a lockdown would have. Iran already struggles under severe U.S. sanctions blocking the sale of its crude oil abroad, measures imposed after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in 2018. That has led to a months-long period of increasing tensions between the nations — tensions that have persisted through the pandemic.
Cab drivers extremely concerned
Iran's economy suffered from over 20 per cent unemployment among its youth and over 40 per cent inflation even before the outbreak.
"I only pick passengers with masks. I cannot put my health at risk," said Ali Qomi, who uses his personal car as a gypsy cab, like many other unemployed Iranians. "We poor people have no way except working to afford the increasing prices of our daily needs."
That need has put drivers at risk. In Tehran, taxi officials say over a dozen cab drivers died from the virus and more than 300 contracted it. But distancing and government decisions have seen more people drive themselves, taking away from the cabbies' possible fares. Meanwhile, some worry the plastic guard shield they put up may not be enough protection.
"Its presence is better than its absence," lawyer Mahsa Leilidoost, a recent taxi passenger, said of the shield.
Ali Reza Zali, who is leading the campaign against the outbreak in Tehran, warned that re-opening of 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's even as the holy 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 May 4, around 10 days into Ramadan. But Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, has already suggested that mass gatherings may be barred throughout Ramadan over the virus.