Tehran, Iran – A slew of new restrictions, including partial lockdowns and curfews, came into effect across Iran on Saturday as an alarming surge in COVID-19 infections continues unabated.
Officials updated a colour-coded list of cities and counties based on the number of confirmed COVID-19 hospitalisations, which classify them from “white” denoting no danger to “red” that shows the highest level of alarm.
For at least two weeks “red” regions will undergo a partial shutdown that includes closing down all non-essential businesses, but allows up to one-third of government employees to work at offices.
It also allows private firms linked with essential services to continue operating in the dozens of regions identified with the highest level of alarm, including in at least 25 of Iran’s 32 province capitals.
More businesses and government workers can keep operating in regions whose classifications are less severe.
A local 9pm to 4am curfew was also implemented across the country that prohibits intra-city travel. Police in regions with the highest risk levels has been allowed to fine violators 10 million rials ($40) every 24 hours.
Moreover, vehicles with non-local license plates have been barred from entering areas classified as “red” or “orange”. Residents of these regions also cannot enter others.
A mandatory mask rule will continue to be implemented across the country.
The new restrictions came after a major spike in the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations, and deaths as Iran battles a third wave of the largest and deadliest coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East.
As announced by the health ministry on Saturday, 431 more deaths were recorded in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 44,327. A further 12,931 more infections were also recorded, with total cases numbering 841,308.
Iran’s worst single-day death toll of 482 was recorded on November 16 while the highest single-day infection figure of 13,421 was registered three days earlier.
Daily infection rates have more than tripled since the start of October.
‘Tough winter ahead’
Health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari called daily death tolls “highly concerning” and signalled more difficult times ahead.
“If the current trend continues, we will have a winter much more difficult than the fall,” she said.
“We hope that through an increase in people refraining from risky behaviours, improving management, and better cooperation of different entities we can witness a halt to the outbreaks in the country.”
Iranian officials say family gatherings are the reason behind more than half of all COVID-19 transmissions.
Iranian women walk through the Grand Bazaar in Tehran [File: Nazanin Tabatabaee via Reuters]Last week, President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech that all measures approved by the national coronavirus task force are to be treated as law and must be implemented.
However, implementation of restrictions has been patchy at best and it appears in many cases the public has been entrusted to adhere to the regulations.
Earlier this month, when a local 6pm curfew for non-essential businesses was implemented in Tehran, reports by state broadcasters showed many shops in major business hubs were still open.
“Who will pay for my cheques if I close down my shop,” asked one store owner of deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi, who accompanied reporters to ask business owners to adhere to public health protocols.
Even before the pandemic, Iran was battling high inflation and unemployment as a result of a mix of local mismanagement and harsh United States economic sanctions.
The US has blacklisted Iran’s entire financial sector after President Donald Trump in May 2018 unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. The US has not heeded multilateral calls to ease sanctions pressure on Iran throughout the deadly pandemic.
But Iran’s pandemic response has also been dogged by internal quarrels.
The health ministry, for instance, has bemoaned a lack of funding as the injection of one billion euros ($1.2bn) earmarked from the National Development Fund of Iran has been slow.
A day before the new restrictions came into effect, deputy health minister Reza Malekzadeh resigned from his post and blasted health minister Saeed Namaki on social media.
He slammed the minister for weak management of the pandemic and said Namaki has caused “significant human casualties” by ignoring health experts. He also criticised the minister for his “unscientific and hurried” hyping of an Iranian COVID-19 vaccine that is merely “in the initial stages of development”.
‘Aggressive lockdown necessary’
Saturday’s restrictions signal another refusal by the government to impose a “circuit-breaker” lockdown – a short but complete shutdown of all but essential activities and limiting contact to immediate household members in an effort to meaningfully bring down virus transmission.
Local officials and experts in Tehran have been calling for a minimum two-week total shutdown of the capital for weeks, warning of dire consequences, but the request was never granted.
Mohammad Akbarpour, an associate professor of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business, said the only way to control the virus is to ensure the reproduction number or “R” is less than one – meaning on average each COVID-19 patient transmits the infection to less than one other individual.
According to research conducted by Akbarpour in collaboration with several Iranian American scientists at other top US universities, the only period in which Iran’s R was substantially less than one was the period of full lockdown in parts of March and April.
“Wearing masks and social distancing in restaurants and so on can reduce the reproduction number to numbers close to one,” Akbarpour told Al Jazeera.
“But what Iran needs at this point is a substantial reduction in the number of infected people and this can be achieved only through an aggressive, short lockdown in which only essential workers are active and people do not interact with anyone but their household members.”
The researcher said reducing current levels of roughly 450 deaths a day to 150 would require at least four weeks of lockdown, but even a two-week lockdown could save tens of thousands of lives until a vaccine is available.
He said there are no “great” options for Iran, but different options will cost the country differently.
“The policymaker’s choice is clear: a few weeks of lockdown, which necessarily has some economic cost, and then get back to levels in which R is around 1 again, and save nearly 100,000 lives,” he said.
“It seems obvious, even from an economic perspective, that a lockdown is optimal.”
Akbarpour said in that period the government would naturally need to offer financial support to those who heavily rely on monthly incomes.
Last week, the Iranian president announced new government support for low-income households, but the amounts indicate the level of financial hardship faced by the government.
According to Rouhani, about one-third of Iran’s roughly 85-million strong population will receive one million rials ($4) a month for the remaining four months until the end of the current Iranian calendar year in late March.
That is equal to less than 5 percent of the monthly minimum wage.
The president said an interest-free loan of 10 million rials ($40) will also be made available to 10 million households.