By Marina Villén
Tehran, Mar 17 (efe-epa).- The shutdown caused by the new coronavirus outbreak has caused serious damage to Iran’s economy which has already been in dire straits for the last two years due to heavy United States sanctions.
The situation has been worsened by neighbouring countries gradually closing their borders with the Central Asian nation in recent weeks.
Iran, the third most-affected country worldwide with 853 deaths and nearly 15,000 cases of the Covid-19 as of Tuesday, has not enforced a complete lockdown in its cities, unlike Italy and Spain, although many businesses have shut down due to government orders and a dwindling footfall of customers.
Cinema halls, theatres and gyms were the first establishments forced to close in order to prevent large gatherings, along with schools, universities and other educational institutes.
Authorities have advised citizens to stay at home, and streets, shops and restaurants are largely deserted despite not everyone complying with the government’s call.
To make things worse, the crisis has coincided with the biggest shopping season in the country ahead of the Persian New Year Nowruz on 20 March.
“During these dates, we used to witness daily sales of 90-100 million rials ($670- $720) but this time it is zero,” says Ghazaleh Amini, a 30-year-old employee at a small clothes shop in northern Tehran.
Amini explains that they decided to close the shop after sales plummeted following the Covid-19 outbreak, as guidelines advised against “trying or changing clothes” in case they were infected.
Fearing contagion, the majority of the citizens have stopped going to restaurants and cafes, which have been practically empty for three weeks, with some closing down completely.
At a popular kebab restaurant in the capital, manager Ahad is sitting idle. He tells Efe that orders have dropped from 180 to 200 per day to barely 10.
“The owner is unable to pay for the rent with these sales and is thinking of shutting down. The workers don’t know what we’ll do,” says Ahad, as waiters and chefs voice similar concerns.
Even shops selling other food products have witnessed a major change: fewer clients arriving in person and more home delivery orders.
“Phone orders have tripled and our delivery boys are unable to cope, some of them are also afraid of getting infected,” a greengrocer tells Efe.
The crisis has affected an economy already in recession due to the US sanctions imposed in 2018 as well as internal mismanagement and corruption.
According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2019 the Iranian economy contracted 9.5 percent while inflation stood at 35.7 percent.
The sharp devaluation of the local currency has intensified since the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in the country, with current exchange rates standing at around 150,000 rials per US dollar, down from around 42,000 two years ago.
On Sunday President Hassan Rouhani announced that businesses that had been forced shut or those that had considerably reduced their activities due to the crisis would be allowed to delay tax payments for three months.
The same time-frame would also be offered to citizens to submit their monthly loan payments to banks and for the payment of water, gas and electricity bills.
Around three million Iranians filling the country’s most precarious jobs will receive four packages of economic aid, while another four million people will be offered low-interest bank loans.