By Pouyan Khoshhal
November 21, 2020
Iran’s most stringent coronavirus measures yet are due go into effect across the country from the small hours of Saturday, November 20. The new “comprehensive lockdowns” have been approved by the Supreme National Security Council and will be backed up with the full force of the law. Up until now, measures introduced by the National Coronavirus Taskforce have not effectively halted the spread of the virus in the long run. This, the health minister has said, will be Iran’s “last chance”.
No Total Lockdown for Tehran
Previously in the week leading up to Saturday, November 14, various government and health officials had talked extensively about a two-week total lockdown of Tehran. But the proposal was shelved at the time. Dr. Minoo Moharez, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s scientific committee, first deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi, Dr. Alireza Zali, director of Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, president of Tehran City Council, were among those who had warned that without a total lockdown of Tehran the situation was bound to get worse.
On November 9, Nader Tavakoli, deputy director of Tehran’s Coronavirus taskforce, had confirmed that the national taskforce was to consider a proposal for a complete two-week lockdown of the Iranian capital at its November 14 meeting. The proposal, he said, would mean “all employees and workers go home and only businesses and services like emergency, fire departments, hospitals, and shops that sell food and other necessities can remain active.”
November 14 came and went, and nothing more was heard about the idea. Even Iran’s national media did not mention the outcome of the meeting.
An Angry Health Minister
Previous directives issued by the National Coronavirus Taskforce had required violators of coronavirus rules to pay fines. Health minister Saeed Namaki has since complained that practically no violator had been fined. But health ministry spokeswoman Dr. Sima Sadat Lari later chimed in, stating that the fines were in place only to “warn” people, and not necessarily to be issued. Given that Saeed Namaki is one of the most senior members of the National Coronavirus Taskforce, one might have assumed he would have known about this.
Before the new “comprehensive lockdowns” took effect, Saeed Namaki broke rank again. “We will show no mercy toward violators,” the health minister said on Wednesday, November 18. He warned that the number of official Covid-19 fatalities could otherwise rise to a four-digit figure, and angrily asked enforcers to act decisively against those flouting the rules. “Anybody can be considered a viral bomb,” he said. The threat came despite the fact that a few days earlier, on November 14, President Rouhani himself had echoed the words of Dr. Lari by saying: “It is true that this plan is associated with fines, the closing of cultural centers and such but, more than that, it is a warning to the people.”
Patchy Adherence to Curfews
Despite the new dusk traffic curfew, in many cities traffic continues well into the night. According to media reports, many businesses are also staying open after 6pm, when they are supposed to close.
Regarding the shops not sticking to curfews, Ruhollah Chelongar, chairman of Isfahan Chamber of Commerce’s economic committee, explained that these businesses are not inherently defiant but financial problems have pushed them not to comply. “Isfahan businesses have either gone bankrupt or are in line to go bankrupt,” he said, “and under these conditions the government must come up with financial packages to help businesses.”
Subsidies: The Battle between Parliament and the Executive
On Wednesday, November 18, President Rouhani announced that one-third of Iranians would receive cash subsidies for the next four months. “We shall approve this measure at the [next] meeting of the coronavirus taskforce,” he said. “Those who qualify will receive a grant of 100 thousand tomans (US$25) per individual [for the next four months]. We will give around 10 million households a loan of one million tomans ($250)… for treating coronavirus, we will cover those who are not covered by insurance and the medication for this disease will be covered by insurance as well.”
Earlier the Iranian parliament had passed a bill to provide subsidies for people without means to buy “essential goods”. But the government has announced that it lacks the financial resources to enact the legislation. Abdolnaser Hemmati, governor of Iran’s Central Bank, said that the bank cannot step in or inflation will worsen. The subsidies announced by Rouhani, he said, would be paid from a budget of 75 trillion tomans (more than $18 billion) already allocated for dealing with the impact of coronavirus.
Malek Shariati, an MP, immediately reacted to this announcement. “The bill to provide subsidies for acquiring essential goods has been approved by the Guardian Council and the government must enact this law,” he said. “The National Coronavirus Taskforce has no authority to pass laws and to allocate large inflationary financial resources in order to implement its own ideas, in preference to those of the parliament.”
It is not clear why the government has decided to advance its own plan for subsidies, while refusing to enact a bill passed by the parliament and approved by the Guardian Council.