Iran, Devastated by Coronavirus, Seeks to Lift Travel Restrictions in a bid to Salvage Economy 

Meanwhile, Iranian Public Health Officials Remain Opposed to Lifting of Restrictions as Death Count Climbs

Iranian authorities have yet to find their footing as the coronavirus outbreak continues to ravage the country and the demands of social distancing exact a high economic toll. In a bid to salvage an economy already weakened by American sanctions, Rouhani has promised a loan to impoverished Iranians by next week and sought to lift travel restrictions before the virus is contained. 
 
AS IRAN’S OUTBREAK SPREADS, THE ECONOMY TUMBLES 
 
Covid-19 continues to spread throughout Iran, exacting an especially high toll in and around the capital. Dr. Alireza Zali, who heads Tehran's Coronavirus Combat Headquarters, said on Wednesday said that the city of Tehran is now "one of the biggest hotspots of coronavirus in the country" and the Tehran province as a whole is showing markedly higher rates of infection than the remainder of the country. 
 
While the death count continues to climb, the economic implications are only beginning to come into full view. In an interview with ISNA on April 11, Labor Minister Ali Rabiei said the outbreak has affected 3.3 million full-time employees and four million self-employed workers in Iran. In other words, over seven million Iranians have either lost their jobs or seen their employment suspended or downgraded. 
 
Indications of discontent with Tehran’s management of the crisis are visible even through the most hardline organs of the Iranian establishment. The daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami, known for its close association to the office of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has suggested that financial institutions operating under his aegis should provide direct support to low-income Iranians hit by the economic consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak, contending that “no economic support by ordinary people can alleviate the hardships imposed on the poor by this outbreak … big financial powers should come to solve the problem and rescue the people."
 
President Rouhani has promised a ten million rial loan to low-income Iranians, to be deposited in their bank accounts no later than April 20. The details of the plan remain vague.
 
“THERE IS NO MIDDLE PATH”
 
On Sunday, Iranian state media announced that the ban on travel between cities within Iranian provinces had been lifted, and that limitations on inter-province travel would end in seven days, on April 20. The move to ease economic restrictions in a country that has yet to contain its outbreak reflects deep anxieties within Tehran’s senior officials as to how much strain the Iranian economy, already weakened by the U.S.’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign, can withstand. As government spokesman Ali Rabiei said in a televised weekly news conference, “We have to fight against the coronavirus and the virus of sanctions together.”
 
While Rouhani insists that the next step is "smart social distancing” — that is, an end to closures that interfere with "the Iranian lifestyle and domestic patterns” — Iranian public health officials remain clearly opposed to any lifting of restrictions.  Speaking to state media on April 11, Dr. Ali Maher, the Planning Deputy of the Coronavirus Combat Taskforce of Tehran, said the Rouhani government must choose between implementing strict closures and opting for a “herd immunity” strategy that would enable the economy to re-open. "There is no middle path," Dr. Ali Maher said, noting that a strategy of herd immunity, while superficially appealing, would ultimately lead to large numbers of deaths and the overwhelming of the healthcare sector. 
 
A recent poll in Tehran conducted by ISPA, the Iranian Students Polling Agency, yielded several findings that speak to the dilemmas posed by the government’s tentative plans to ease closures. 75 percent of respondents in the poll of over 1,000 said that social distancing measures should remain in place, while 70 percent claimed to be experiencing severe difficulties in providing for their families economically. Nearly half of respondents expressed skepticism toward official government statistics pertaining to the coronavirus outbreak in Iran.