Tehran: Iran on Saturday closed businesses and reduced travel between its main cities, including the capital of Tehran, as it grapples with the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East region.
Senior Iranian officials initially downplayed the risks posed by the virus outbreak, before recently urging the public to follow measures such as wearing masks and avoiding unnecessary travel.
Iran has recorded a daily death toll of more than 430 in the past five days. Iran’s health ministry said on Saturday the total number of confirmed cases had risen to more than 840,000.
The new lockdown measures, which include closing most businesses, stores, malls and restaurants, include Iran’s largest cities, Mashhad, Isfahan and Shiraz. Iranian authorities have designated the approximately 160 affected cities as hot spots because these urban centers have the highest daily positive coronavirus test results per capita.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a televised speech on Saturday urged people to follow measures to help “reduce the death toll.” He added that the government plans to provide cash grants to Iran’s 30 million poorest people for four months to help them manage the economic fallout from the new epidemic.
The latest round of restrictions aimed at stemming the outbreak came as a row between top Iranian health officials led to the resignation of at least two officials.
Iranian newspapers said on Saturday that Deputy Health Minister for Research Reza Malekzadeh resigned his post in response to recent remarks by Health Minister Saeed Namaki, who said research projects led by the government were not successfully meeting the current needs of the department.
In response, Malekzadeh, in his resignation letter, criticized the government’s mismanagement of the viral epidemic as leading to “a large number of human deaths”.
Iranian news sites also said Ali Nobakht, adviser to the Minister of Health, had resigned for similar reasons, without providing further details.
In Tehran, the head of the city’s chamber of commerce, Qassem Nodeh, said the restrictions would shut down 70 percent of businesses in and around the capital.
Manoochehr Nassiri, who runs a lighting store in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, complained about the closures.
“We store owners don’t know what to do, given the country’s economic situation,” he said outside his shuttered store.
The closures are scheduled to last two weeks but can be automatically extended.
As of Saturday, government offices that provide essential public services – including banks, post offices, communications and utilities – will continue their work with half of the regular workforce. All other government offices will continue to work with one third of their staff.
All schools in the capital will also be closed and forced to switch to virtual education through the Internet. Authorities will also close shrines in Tehran and cancel mass prayers in mosques, although it was not immediately clear whether the same restrictions would apply in other cities, including the holy city of Mashhad.
All travel between the cities concerned by private car is also suspended. Public transport will be available but the use of private cars is prohibited between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.
People who have tested positive for the virus are required to stay at home and can face a fine of around $ 8 if they show up in public.
Media organizations, construction jobs, agriculture, heavy industry, and elderly and assisted living services are largely exempt from the closures.
Iran has avoided the full lockdowns seen in other countries as it struggles to keep its failing economy alive in the face of crushing US sanctions. President Donald Trump once again imposed sweeping sanctions on the country after his withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.