Iranians, wearing protective face masks and gloves without observing social distancing, walk in the streets of the capital Tehran on May 9, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

As the death toll from the novel coronavirus in Iran approaches 7,000 and cases surge past 100,000, experts are warning that an untimely reopening in progress could precipitate a new wave of infections.

“There is no other path ahead of us,” said President Hassan Rouhani, in explaining to the public his decision to ease a weeks-long nationwide lockdown.

Iran remains the Middle East’s epicenter of Covid-19, with more than double the number of recorded infections in Saudi Arabia, the region’s second worst-hit country.

The Rouhani administration’s appeal to the International Monetary Fund for a US$5 billion emergency loan to fight the public health crisis has not been responded to yet.

The appeal is likely to be blocked by the United States, which has the biggest share of votes and has been pursuing a campaign of maximum pressure against the Islamic Republic.

The most notable initiative of the government has been to disburse loans of 10 million rials ($60) to 19 million and 415,000 households, which are to be repaid in 30 installments through reductions from the monthly cash subsidies they receive from the government.

But given the state of the sanctions-hit economy, authorities in Tehran appear to have decided the nation cannot withstand further inactivity.

“Previously, combating coronavirus could be done by staying home. Today, this fight takes place through resuming economic activities,” Rouhani told the nation in a speech in April.

A new peak

As Iran’s government proceeds to reopen mosques, schools and businesses, medical experts are raising the alarm that a new surge of infections could undo months of risky frontline work.

“Considering that the pandemic has not been completely repelled yet, the extensive reopening of businesses, offices and universities, which are venues for the gathering of many people in indoor environments, can distribute the disease in the society at a rapid pace,” said Peyman Foroughi, a 30-year-old doctor working with coronavirus patients in the northwestern city of Tabriz.

Foroughi says he worries Iran will soon see a new peak.

“It is highly likely that the disease emerges as a heavy weight falling on the healthcare system, which would exceed its capacity,” he told Asia Times.

The official statistics on coronavirus infections and mortalities in Iran have been disputed by various sources, including members of parliament, journalists and even World Health Organization authorities, who say Iran is under-reporting its caseload and fatalities.

In a report published on April 14, the Majlis Research Center affiliated with Iran’s parliament disputed the government narrative, claiming that the number of people inflicted with Covid-19 was eight to 10 times higher than the official figures, revolving around 600,000 to 750,000.

The center further stated that 8,609 people had died of the virus since the pandemic broke out in Iran up to then. On that day, the death toll announced by the Ministry of Health was 4,683.

In recent days, photos of the metropolitan capital, Tehran, have sprung up on social media and local news agencies, showing jam-packed streets and highways, overcrowded trains and buses and many people openly ignoring social distancing protocols and even refusing to wear surgical masks and gloves.

The government’s decision to give businesses and offices permission to operate appears to have imparted the impression of a normalized situation and many Tehran denizens are now taking it for granted that it is no longer imperative to be vigilant.

“If you ask any person involved in the healthcare sector, they will tell you that it is not conducive to containing the pandemic,” said Dr Ayat Ahmadi, an epidemiologist with Tehran University of Medical Sciences.

“It cannot be said that the decision is a calculated one, and is not predicated on scientific evidence. What is obvious is that the majority of experts who have made statements on the issue of lockdown do not agree with the reopening,” he told Asia Times.

Few, he admits, have proposed viable alternatives.

Iranian voters wear masks as they wait to cast their ballots during parliamentary elections at the Shah Abdul Azim shrine on the southern outskirts of Tehran on February 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Night of Destiny

The holy month of Ramadan, which is a time of fasting and reflection, was marked across the Muslim world differently this year, as mosques were shuttered and public Iftar ceremonies banned, and Muslims were asked to stay home and practice their rituals privately.

In Iran, the decision to close down mosques and holy shrines was a tricky one for the government of Hassan Rouhani as it had to walk the tightrope of satisfying influential religious conservatives who wanted the places of worship and shrines to be open, while addressing concerns of the majority of the public, who feared congregational prayers and large gatherings in mosques could further spread the virus.

For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, Friday prayers were called off for nine consecutive weeks and the shrine of the 8th Shia Imam Reza in the pilgrimage city of Mashhad was closed.

Nonetheless, under growing pressure by such entities as the Islamic Development Organization and Qom Seminary, which hold great sway over the sociopolitical affairs in the Islamic Republic, the restrictions are being eased, and on May 8, Friday prayers were held in the cities of 23 provinces nationwide.

Ahmad Alamolhoda, a prominent conservative cleric and the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, had earlier described the suspension of Friday prayers as “unjustifiable.”

A major test for the government will be whether to allow the faithful to gather next week on Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Destiny, in which strength in numbers is believed to multiply the impact of prayer.

Saeed Namaki, Iran’s Minister of Health, announced on Twitter that decisions will soon be publicized.

On Sunday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an online meeting with the national coronavirus task force that he will submit to the opinions of experts and the relevant health authorities regarding such openings.

He stressed, however, that praying is one of the “essential needs” of the people, particularly during Ramadan, and the experts making a decision on this should comprehend the importance of prayers and spirituality.