Iran imposes nationwide COVID-19 restrictions however no lockdown | Center East

Tehran, Iran – A number of new restrictions, including partial bans and curfews, went into effect across Iran on Saturday as an alarming surge in COVID-19 infections continues unabated.

Officials updated a color-coded list of cities and counties based on the number of confirmed COVID-19 hospital stays, classifying them from “white” which means no danger to “red” and indicates the highest alert level.

For at least two weeks, “red” regions will be partially closed, which includes closing all non-essential businesses but allowing up to a third of government employees to work in offices.

In addition, private companies associated with essential services can continue to operate in dozen of regions with the highest level of alert, including at least 25 of Iran’s 32 provincial capitals.

More companies and government employees can continue to work in regions that are less strictly classified.

A local curfew from 9:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. has been introduced across the country, banning travel within the city. Police in areas of highest risk were allowed to impose 10 million rials ($ 40) of violations every 24 hours.

In addition, vehicles with non-local license plates were banned from entering areas classified as “red” or “orange”. Residents of these regions cannot enter any other region.

A mandatory mask rule will continue to be implemented across the country.

The new restrictions came after a surge in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths as Iran battled a third wave of the Middle East’s largest and deadliest coronavirus pandemic.

As announced by the Ministry of Health on Saturday, 431 more deaths have been recorded in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 44,327. Another 12,931 other infections were registered, with the total number of cases being 841,308.

The worst one-day death toll in Iran of 482 was recorded on November 16, while the highest one-day infection number of 13,421 was recorded three days earlier.

Daily infection rates have more than tripled since the beginning of October.

“Hard winter ahead”

Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari described the daily death toll as “very worrying” and signaled more difficult times.

“If the current trend continues, winter will be a lot tougher than autumn,” she said.

“We hope that by increasing the number of people abandoning risky behaviors, better management and better cooperation, we can stop the outbreaks in the country.”

Iranian officials say family reunions are the reason for 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 address that all measures approved by the national coronavirus task force must be treated and implemented as law.

However, the implementation of the restrictions has been patchy at best and it appears that in many cases the public has been tasked with complying with the rules.

Earlier this month, when a 6 p.m. curfew on non-essential businesses was introduced in Tehran, reports from state broadcasters showed that many stores in key business centers were still open.

“Who pays my checks when I close my shop?” A shopkeeper asked Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who accompanied reporters to ask shop owners to comply with public health protocols.

Even before the pandemic, Iran was battling high inflation and unemployment due to a mix of local mismanagement and harsh US economic sanctions.

The US blacklisted the entire Iranian financial sector after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal with the world powers in May 2018. The US ignored multilateral demands to reduce sanctions pressure on Iran during the deadly pandemic.

However, the response to the Iranian pandemic has also been followed by internal disputes.

The Ministry of Health, for example, has complained about a lack of funding, as the inflow of one billion euros 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 poor management of the pandemic, saying Namaki had caused “significant human sacrifice” by ignoring health experts. He also criticized the minister for his “unscientific and hasty” hyping of an Iranian COVID-19 vaccine that is only “in the early stages of development”.

“Aggressive blocking necessary”

Saturday’s restrictions signal a further refusal by the government to impose a “breaker” lockdown – a brief but complete shutdown of all non-essential activities and restricting contact with immediate household members to meaningfully reduce virus transmission.

Local officials and experts in Tehran have been calling for the capital to be closed completely for at least two weeks in order to warn of dire consequences, but the application was never approved.

Mohammad Akbarpour, associate professor of economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said the only way to control the virus is to make sure the reproductive number, or “R”, is less than one – meaning that, on average, everyone COVID-19 patient transmits the infection less than another person.

According to research by Akbarpour, in collaboration with several Iranian-American scholars at other leading US universities, the only period when the Iranian R was significantly less than one was the period of full lockdown in parts of March and April.

“Wearing masks and social distancing in restaurants, etc. can reduce the number of reproductions to numbers close to one,” Akbarpour told Al Jazeera.

“What Iran needs at this point, however, is a significant reduction in the number of infected people. This can only be achieved through an aggressive, brief lockdown where only essential workers are active and people only interact with their household members.”

The researcher said reducing the current number from around 450 deaths per day to 150 would require at least a four-week lockdown, but even a two-week lockdown could save tens of thousands of lives by the time a vaccine is available.

He said there are no “great” options for Iran, but different options cost the country differently.

“The policymaker’s choice is clear: a couple of weeks of lockdown, which will necessarily add some economic cost, and then go back to levels where R is back around 1 and save nearly 100,000 lives,” he said.

“Even from an economic perspective, it seems obvious that a lockdown is optimal.”

Akbarpour said at the time that the government must of course financially support those who are heavily dependent on monthly incomes.

Last week, the Iranian President announced new government support for low-income households, but the amounts show the extent of the financial plight the government is facing.

According to Rouhani, about a third of the roughly 85 million Iranians will receive one million rials ($ 4) per month in the remaining four months to the end of the current Iranian calendar year at the end of March.

This corresponds to less than 5 percent of the monthly minimum wage.

The president said a 10 million rials ($ 40) interest-free loan would also be made available to 10 million households.

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