Coronavirus Spreads In Iran, Piling More Problems On The Sanctions-Hit Country

Mar 3, 2020
Originally published on March 11, 2020 3:18 pm

The woman had had enough. She turned and stormed out of Dr. Rodmanish Pharmacy, before NPR could ask her name.

"No masks, no gloves," she fumed. "They don't have anything here!"

Similar scenes have played out in pharmacies across Iran's capital of Tehran. The outbreak of the new coronavirus has sent Iranians scrambling to avoid becoming another statistic in a country with more deaths from the disease than any besides China.

Iran has reported 77 deaths from COVID-19, and 2,336 confirmed cases of infection, as of Tuesday. On Monday, Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a 71-year-old member of a council that advises Iran's supreme leader, became one of the latest casualties β€” the first senior official to die from the coronavirus.

Iranian Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi (left) wipes the sweat off his face, during a news conference with government spokesman Ali Rabiei in Tehran on Feb. 23. The next day, Harirchi confirmed he tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Mehdi Bolourian / Fars News/AFP via Getty Images

Other Iranian officials have also contracted the disease, including the deputy health minister in charge of Iran's anti-coronavirus task force. On Feb. 24, he appeared in a televised news conference mopping sweat from his face and wearing no protective mask, before announcing the next day he had caught the virus.

Public gatherings, including Friday prayers in Tehran and other cities, have been canceled, schools closed and crews of cleaners dispatched to disinfect trains, buses and gathering places.

A woman wears a mask while shopping from a crystal shop in Shoosh Bazaar.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR

Iranians take pride in their ability to ride out tough times. But during a recent NPR visit to Tehran, public concern over the government's response to the virus was apparent. The coronavirus outbreak comes at a time when Iran is already reeling from economic woes as the United States imposes tough economic sanctions on the country. Iran's economy contracted by an estimated 9.5% last year.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Monday made a plea on Twitter for countries and the World Health Organization to assist Iran in fighting the coronavirus, saying Iran urgently needs test kits, face masks, ventilators and other supplies. He blamed the U.S. sanctions for endangering Iranian patients.

Unable to predict Trump or coronavirus

Iran enjoyed an economic growth spurt after Tehran and other world powers signed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, when many sanctions were lifted in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program. That recovery began to sour after President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018.

A bazaar in the Shoosh area of Tehran that is usually packed with people was almost empty by late last month. Shopkeepers have seen a drop in customers since the coronavirus outbreak.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR

"Iran was totally unprepared for the return of sanctions," says economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani at Virginia Tech.

"The government was unable to predict Trump's behavior, a bit like the reaction to the coronavirus," he says.

Salehi-Isfahani estimates the country's middle class has shrunk by about 10% since the sanctions hit.

In Tehran, it doesn't take long to find residents struggling to make ends meet.

"We've had a problem, no other companies are selling products to us, so we don't have too much to sell," says 35-year-old Mohsen at his housewares shop near Tehran's Shoosh Square.

Like most people interviewed for this story, he gave only his first name, worried about potential retribution for speaking with an American reporter.

People sit in the main waiting area in Tehran's railway station. Crews of cleaners were dispatched to disinfect trains, buses and public gathering places.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR

Mohsen says the lack of inventory and rising consumer prices are adding to his woes. When asked if the newly elected Iranian parliament, with its majority of hard-liners, might do something to help, he shakes his head: "No, actually, they will possibly make it worse," he says.

"Resistance economy"

The 2018 collapse of Iran's currency, skyrocketing prices and rising unemployment all contributed to the country's economic woes.

A man walks toward Tehran's train station. News of the coronavirus outbreak had Iranians scrambling to avoid becoming another statistic in a country with more deaths from the disease than any country besides China.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR

There was a sharp drop in imports as well, but that actually had an interesting side effect: Unable to rely on goods from abroad, demand for locally produced items began to rise. Production in Iran of things like home appliances and housewares has begun to rise, according to economists.

Mehdi Naseri gets up from behind the counter at his jewelry shop to emphasize that point.

"It's getting better," he says, "because there's no import of Chinese products so we can sell Iranian products."

A typically busy highway in Tehran has only a few cars on the road.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR

Naseri says that it will take a while for the economy to really pick up, but increased self-reliance is "good for our factories and the workers, and it will continue to improve."

Naseri's comments are squarely in line with the views of Iran's supreme leader. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei regularly exhorts Iranians to rely on their "resistance economy" to endure whatever hardships are visited on Iran by enemies such as the U.S.

Now another enemy has come to test their resistance β€” the coronavirus.

Authorities' delayed response

Outside another crowded Tehran pharmacy, a 52-year-old Iranian American named Giti says she has family in the U.S. She is one of many in Tehran who suspect the government deliberately delayed announcing the coronavirus crisis for political reasons.

Iran reported its first confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Feb. 19. Giti says she thinks the government withheld a broader response until after the parliamentary election on Feb. 21, because officials may have worried people wouldn't turn out to vote if there were fears of catching the virus. "I think it was worse, they just didn't mention it," she says.

With the number of cases and fatalities still on the rise, Iranians are finding it hard to see things improving anytime soon.

In Iran's Grand Bazaar, 72-year-old Masoumeh adjusts the medical mask on her face and looks around at the sparse crowd. The retired teacher says few customers are showing up at other markets too, even though normally this would be a busy time: the run-up to the Persian new year, Nowruz, on March 20.

"It's more empty now," says Masoumeh.

"Our New Year's is coming, but even officials are having problems. Of course it will be harder for our families," she says, adding, "maybe next year will be even worse."

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Iranian businesses have been operating for nearly two years now under sanctions imposed by President Trump. The Iranian economy shrank nearly 10% last year. Now that country has been hit hard by the coronavirus. More than 350 people have died of the disease there. NPR's Peter Kenyon was recently in Tehran, where he met people struggling but determined to endure.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In Tehran's Grand Bazaar, 36-year-old Hossein is scrubbing the floor of his butcher stall as a lone potential customer warily eyes the prices of the cuts of beef and lamb on offer. Like most people who agreed to an interview, he gives only his first name, not wishing to hear from authorities about talking to American media. He says in the past three days, prices have shot up again.

HOSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: Some people can't afford to buy meat anymore, he says, adding, "sure, definitely business has slowed down." Nearby, 72-year-old Masoumeh looks around glumly. She says the weeks before Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, should be a bustling busy time, but not this year.

MASOUMEH: (Through interpreter) Compared with last year, the Grand Bazaar here, it's more empty now. You know, our new year is coming, but even those who are officials, they're having problems too.

KENYON: Like many Iranians, Masoumeh prides herself on being able to weather American sanctions, something Iran's supreme leader calls the resistance economy. But she fears the coming year may be even worse. Economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani at Virginia Tech says those fears looked to be well-founded. He says the damage caused in part by U.S. sanctions, the 2018 collapse of the Iranian currency, inflation shooting up as high as 120% is hitting ordinary Iranians.

DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI: This cut down in the purchasing power of the middle class. I've estimated that some 10% of Iranians who used to be middle-class status are no longer middle-class status.

KENYON: At his housewares shop, 35-year-old Mohsen says he's definitely noticed the downturn is getting worse.

MOHSEN: (Through interpreter) The past few days we've had a problem. No other companies are selling products to us, so we don't have too much to sell. And prices are going up. And fewer customers are coming.

KENYON: We spoke just after Iranians went to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections. They delivered a solid majority to hard-line candidates. Most moderates had been stricken from the ballot. But Mohsen doesn't think that they'll do much to turn things around. With a wry smile, he says, no, actually, they will possibly make it worse. Like many Iranians, he blames domestic mismanagement as well as sanctions for Iran's problems.

At a nearby jewelry store, 36-year-old Mehdi Naseri took a more positive view, saying cheap imported goods from China aren't getting in these days, which is good news for domestic producers.

MEHDI NASERI: (Through interpreter) the Chinese products are low quality, not like German or American goods. But now our products are selling, and that's good for our factories and workers. And I think it will continue to improve.

KENYON: But such optimism is facing a new challenge in the form of the coronavirus outbreak, which Iranian leaders were slow to respond to. President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly announced that the coronavirus crisis will pass quickly, but 30-year-old Hojad Kiani doesn't believe it.

HOJAD KIANI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: "I think, no, it's getting worse. Now is just the beginning. It'll get more difficult," he says. But he hopes another popular belief, that the outbreak will fade as the weather warms up, turns out to be true.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Tehran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.