By Ali Ranjipour
April 7, 2020
On the morning of Saturday, April 4, many observers in Iran were startled by the volume of traffic on the streets. People had been under the impression that fellow citizens would remain at home until the present crisis subsided, but this had not happened.
In theory and in practice, the morning of April 4 should not have looked all that different from the morning of March 30. And yet for some reason it was. Large crowds left their homes in droves to reach their places of work by all means possible: in private vehicles, in taxis, on the subway or by bus. Who are these people – and why did they risk their lives in this dangerous environment, with the ongoing possibility of contracting a deadly disease?
Who Should Be On the Roads?
A resolution by Iran’s Coronavirus National Headquarters last month stipulated that from March 24, in the first week after the Norooz holiday, offices should run in the same manner as they had during the holidays. That is to say, other than for essential work, that organizations should continue to operate under a “one-third of workforce” model.
Businesses of all varieties, with the exception of grocery stores, pharmacies, and healthcare facilities, were also expected to close.
It later emerged that the Ministry of Industry, Mine and Trade had issued a directive to closed shops and business centers to reopen, despite the opposition of the Ministry of Health. In fact, the Ministry of Industry had ordered the reopening of production units on the personal instruction of President Hassan Rouhani.
According to official figures, the total number of government employees and individuals on the public sector payroll in Iran is about 2.3 million. But this is likely to be a drastic under-estimation as the precise number of employees in the Ministries of Defense and Intelligence, as well as in Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), is not known. In addition this count does not include employees at a municipal level and within certain types of public institution, not to mention members of the Armed Forces.
According to some estimates, the total number of salaried individuals in the Iranian Armed Forces is about 513,000, as well as around 350,000 conscripts. According to remarks by officials the total number of employees in municipalities around the country, meanwhile, was about 300,000 up until 2015. On the assumption that the total number of salaried employees of the Ministries of Intelligence and Defense is around 100,000, the total number of Iranian state employees will be more than 3.5 million.
This figure is in broad agreement with the results of a survey conducted by the Statistics Center of Iran in 2017, which estimated the then-total to be 3,700,000.
At least one million of these people, the employees of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science, are not currently expected to go to work.
But health workers and Armed Forces personnel must still be on duty, and their combined population is thought to be around one million. There remains another 1.5 million public sector employees not yet accounted for, and it is estimated that the number who were supposed to be on duty on Saturday morning was also about 1.5 million.
At the same time, the Statistics Center of Iran estimates that around four million people work in the industrial manufacturing sector. Based on the assumption that the population of essential service jobs is about the same, the overall number of workers who were supposed to be present at work on Saturday morning comes in at less than 10 million: in sum, about 40 percent of the country’s labor force in normal conditions.
But was the Saturday morning traffic running at just 40 percent of its usual volume? The answer is no – far from it.
Who Was Actually On the Roads?
It can be safely assumed that many of those who were spotted outside on Saturday are people who, though they may well have remained at home this week in accordance with the guidance of the Coronavirus National Headquarters, had left the house based on another “must.”
The fresh wave of economic difficulty brought on by the coronavirus outbreak is not bearable for all those affected. The extent of the crisis is extreme, and the threshold of public tolerance is low. This goes for other countries, too, where the economic effects of the coronavirus have broken some of history’s most formidable records: the United States reached an unprecedented high for unemployment insurance last week, while businesses have temporarily or permanently shut down across the world’s most advanced economies, and millions have lost their jobs. But how much worse it must be for Iran, which even before the outbreak of coronavirus was grappling with one of the most severe contemporary economic crises in the world.
Twenty days ago, on the last working day of 1398 [2019/20], Iran’s deputy minister of economic affairs in conjunction with the Ministry of Labor published a report entitled An Introduction to Effects of Coronavirus Outbreak on Iranian Economy. The report concluded that about one-fifth of the working population in Iran, around 4,800,000 people, are now at risk of dismissal and unemployment.
By comparing this figure to Iran’s employment ratio, it can be surmised that the chief source of income for more than 14 million Iranians is either already lost or in danger of disappearing.
To compound the situation, the Iranian government does not have a sound mechanism for managing services that support vulnerable people out of work. Nor is it able to establish such a network now, due to the financial crisis.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the crowds that left their homes on Saturday morning even though they had been ordered to stay at home were doing so with total inevitability. The traffic on the streets was borne out of a compulsion at the individual level: to keep a job at risk of disposal, to maintain a shut-down business that must still clear its checks at the end of the month, to survive within an economic tempest that has manifested in Iran as unemployment, poverty, and hunger.
Staying at home is generally a wise choice in order to avoid the risk of death. But for some, the choice between staying home and leaving home is also the choice between a possible death due to coronavirus, and a probable death due to poverty and hunger.
Watching the traffic generated by the underprivileged in these difficult times is acutely worrying. But for those familiar with the economic climate in Iran and the position of its vulnerable members of society, it comes as no surprise at all.