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April 1, 2020

Coronavirus Update in Iran 4/01

42 days after the first Coronavirus cases were officially reported in Qom, the virus continues to decimate Iran. Below is an update of events and how U.S. policy is affecting the crisis: 

Status of Outbreak

  • As of April 1st, 3,036 have died from the disease in Iran and 47,593 have been infected according to official government figures. Dr. Rick Brennan, Director of Emergency Operations in the World Health Organization’s (WHO), recently visited Iran and suggested that the “number of cases reported could represent only about a fifth of the real numbers. The reason was that testing, as is the case even in some wealthy European countries, was restricted to severe cases.”

  • As the virus continues to spread, Iranian government officials rolled out an online coronavirus screening which could push the number of identified cases up considerably. All Iranians have been asked to fill in the online questionnaire and check their symptoms on the government health portal. According to Health ministry officials, 63 million Iranians have signed up on the government portal.

  • Unlike most other countries who have experienced exponential growth in the number of cases, Iran has, according to official numbers, experienced more steady growth.  It is not clear why Iran’s numbers do not show a fast rise in the number of deaths, with many inside and outside of Iran continuing to question the legitimacy of Iran’s official numbers.

  • In an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani, Mostafa Moein, a prominent reformist politician who also heads the Board of Directors of Iran’s Medical Council said the government must announce the precise number of infected and hospitalized patients as well as the death toll by city and province “transparently and honestly” to help authorities make fact-based decisions and to gain the trust and better cooperation of the public.

  • Moreover, reports broke of multiple prison riots throughout Iran, increasing mounting pressure for the to protect its inmates, some of the most vulnerable given the density and conditions in which they live, from the outbreak.

  • Some inmates have broken loose following the riots, although a few have returned. This comes after Iran has temporarily released or pardoned about 100,000 detainees in the past month. However, “security prisoners,” including prominent imprisoned dual nationals, have not been included in these national orders with only a few exceptions. 

How Iranians are Dealing with Crisis

  • In the midst of the pandemic that has ravaged the country, Iranians have found ways to weather the storms as best they can. Iran’s doctors and nurses, who have been at the frontlines of this disaster, were the first segment of society to make light of the situation, posting viral videos of themselves dancing and singing in full protective gowns, masks, and goggles.

  • Iranian artists and comedians have also taken to social media to show solidarity and provide entertainment during this time of crisis. Famous Iranian artist and singer Ashkan Khatibi posted a video clip of his new song on Instagram March 14 which has so far had 1.5 million views. The song, called “Dasteto Bede Man” (“Give Me Your Hand”), is based on ideals of hope during dark times.  Popular comedian Rambod Javan also started a 45-minute entertainment show, helping amplify other stand-up comedians and singers who joined him on the show.

  • Ordinary Iranians have also turned to social media, creating funny video clips about social distancing and the virus. In one video, one man asks “hello, friends, how are you?” to two friends. Instead of kissing cheeks in the traditional Iranian greeting, the men, standing on a sidewalk in front of a shop, lift their shoes and tap each others’ feet.

  • In addition, as the economic pain of the crisis became more acute, and with the government’s narrow stimulus packages, proprietors and owners of stores and malls allowed their tenants to pay only a portion of rents due. In Chabahar city, a property owner of over 80 stores has exempted all his tenants from paying March rent, stating that, “my share in controlling the coronavirus crisis is staying home, taking care of personal hygiene and assuring that my tenants — who have been [mired] in recession for some time or had to close down the stores — that they need not worry about falling behind on their monthly rents.”

Stricter Measures on Travel Instituted

  • After weeks of denying that more stringent measures were necessary to stall the spread of the virus, the Rouhani administration instituted an intercity travel ban, a day after Iran’s government spokesman warned the country might face a surge of cases in the coronavirus pandemic.

  • This order also comes after complaints from government officials that the public was not taking the threat seriously, ignoring previous appeals from government officials to cancel travel plans for the Persian New Year holidays that began on March 20.

  • Instead, thousands of Iranians were seen traveling for the holiday in the midst of the outbreak. Hossein Zolfaghari – a member of Iran’s coranvirus task force – said, “those who have travelled for the Iranian New Year holidays should immediately return to their cities without making any stops in other cities on their way back home.”

  • However, there was confusion concerning the implementation of these bans, with multiple cities imposing their own without coordination with the central government in Tehran.

  • Following the announcement made by President Hassan Rouhani on March 26th about launching strict disease control and prevention measures, reports from Iran say there is widespread confusion among officials and the police force about travel control regulations. Contradictory statements from officials in Tehran, Shiraz, and other cities on the implementation of the central government’s decree have added to the assessment that the government continues to botch the response to the crisis.

Calls Within the U.S. to Reduce Sanctions on Iran Grow

  • As the virus rampages throughout Iran, the conversation concerning the impact of U.S. policy on the outbreak has taken shape, with two seperate groups of lawmakers in Congress calling on the Trump administration to ease sanctions on Iran during this time of crisis.

  • A bi-cameral group of mostly progressive Democratic Senators and House members sent a letter addressed to Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Mnuchin calling on the administration to ease sanctions, stating that “pandemics know no borders. Allowing this crisis to become more dire in Iran threatens significant harm not only to the people of Iran but also to people in the United States and around the world.”

  • Another letter, this time signed by Sen. Chris Murphy and 10 other Democratic Senators, called on the easing of sanctions for 90-days on both Iran and Venezuela. The letter goes on to say that, “by allowing our sanctions to contribute to the exceptional pain and suffering brought about by the coronavirus outbreaks in both nations, we play into the anti-Americanism that is at the heart of both regimes’ hold on power.”

  • The debate over sanctions relief also spilled over onto editorial boards, with the New York Times and the Washington Post both coming out in support of easing sanctions during the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal,  however, released their own editorial board recommendation stating that this is no time to ease sanctions on Iran. 
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