In the final week of April 2020, thousands of American families were preparing to return to work, visit relatives, attend religious services, go shopping, and even spend some time in the outdoors after a month-long period of home confinement. At that point, the United States reported the highest numbers of coronavirus deaths and infections, but the governors of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee were eager to resume economic activity as part of an effort to mitigate the impending financial collapse. Around the same time this tentative economic reopening was taking place in the U.S., similar measures were being considered in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On April 19, officials in the populous city of Tehran, the capital of Iran and one of the largest metropolitan areas in the Middle East, resolved to reopen some bazaars and shopping malls. Traffic restrictions were eased, and traffic jams were spotted at many of the busy highways of this city. Public health officials assigned to the task force dealing with the pandemic in the Islamic Republic were not pleased with the government’s decision to ease social distancing restrictions; however, they also knew that the ailing economy of their country did not allow for extended quarantine periods.
Iranians were cautious as they returned to shop at bazaars; many wore face masks and kept their distance as much as possible while others lamented that they could not gather for evening prayers at mosques and shrines. Like in other Middle East nations, Iranians had to deal with not being able to gather for evening prayers during the holy month of Ramadan, but this was not the only religious hardship they were forced to contend with. The Nowruz celebration of the Persian New Year, which culminated on March 20, was spent indoors at a time when families travel across the country to visit each other and enjoy delicious home-cooked meals.
To say that the daily life of Iranians has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic would be an understatement. When the first coronavirus infections and deaths were reported in late February, the mortality ratio was quite high not just in the Middle East but across Asia as well. With the death toll rising by the dozen on a daily basis, Iranians became highly suspicious of the statistics released by the government; after all, these events unfolded just one month following the accidental missile strike that brought down Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752, killing 176 passengers and aircrew.
The anxiety of daily life in Iran during the coronavirus pandemic was compounded by the ongoing trade sanctions that the U.S. has been imposing since 2018. Even before the pandemic, procuring food and medicines was a difficult task because Iran is highly dependent on imported goods; adding insult to injury, this is a nation where rampant unemployment and inflation have become facts of life. On paper, the trade sanctions should not affect food, medical supplies, or humanitarian aid, but as Middle East expert Amir Handjani has previously explained, this is not really the case.
Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in 2017, trade sanctions have become complex instruments that effectively preclude humanitarian trade. While this should be a violation of United Nations guidelines, it happens more often than people realize. A Brazilian pharmaceutical company, for example, may evaluate a deal to export antibiotics to Iran and decide that it is not worth the risk; this decision is usually made after law firms that specialize on international trade matters review the hundreds of pages that make up primary and secondary sanctions. What is often found in these sanctions is buried in the legalese: go ahead and trade with the Islamic Republic now, but suffer the consequences later.
As of April 23, the number of coronavirus deaths in Iran stood at 5,481, but many people believe that this number is actually higher. This overall distrust of the regime spreads to average Iranian families who are not connected with the military, the oil production industry, or the government. As they struggle to put food on the table and stay healthy, Iranians are forced to deal with censorship, propaganda, and news reports about the Revolutionary Guards Corps spending millions of dollars to launch a military satellite into orbit. We are talking about millions of dollars that could have been used to put together emergency meals and care packages for millions of Iranians who live in poverty. In the end, it is safe to assume that daily life in Iran has been difficult since before the coronavirus pandemic, and it only became more challenging afterwards.