People in Iran received an important text message from the government on their mobile phones on April 10. It provided tips to access free social and family services. The step aims to mitigate the acute socioeconomic distress caused by COVID-19.
Coping with the virus is next to impossible in Iran. The country saw its first major outbreak over two months ago but took few precautionary steps. Death tolls are high, in fact some 80 percent more than what the government at first admitted to. The authorities are also charged with acting too slowly to impose quarantines. When they did, the measures were not enforced properly to stop people from moving around, but instead led to a shutdown of small and medium-sized businesses that fuel half of Iran’s economy.
Iran has suffered from chronic unemployment and a sluggish economy caused by international sanctions and corruption.
Iran’s economy was never strong, even before the coronavirus outbreak. The country suffered from chronic unemployment and a sluggish economy caused by international sanctions, local mismanagement, waste, and corruption. The coronavirus has drastically slowed it down. In urban areas, average monthly salaries dropped to 36 million Rials (or roughly $857 USD at official exchange rates of $1 USD = 42,000 Rials), and in rural areas to 19.4 million Rials (roughly $462 USD)—figures that are much lower than the cost of living. This places half of Iranian families in dire need to make ends meet in the age of COVID-19.
An increase of gasoline prices late last year in Iran led to deadly anti-government protests, and turned major segments of society into crisis zones. The impact of the coronavirus will be far more devastating than the riots. Meanwhile, faced with chronic budget deficits, a global glut of oil and falling oil prices, the government has lost most of its financial resources, and is unable to plan for the long-term requirements of basic goods or medicine.
There is already a conspicuous drop in demand for most products and commodities in Iran, because people who can afford to, opt to stay home instead of going out to shop.
But with average savings-to income ratio per household of less than 10 percent in Iran, most people lack real purchasing power.
Rapid economic relief plans to offer people more subsidies worth 2.5 billion Rials are underway.
Rapid economic relief plans to offer people more subsidies worth 2.5 billion Rials are underway, including 310,000 billion Rials that goes directly to “family funds” to give 25 million households 10 million Rials each during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starting in late April.
Furthermore, reports point to a surge in domestic violence, child abuse, and future separation and divorce rates because of the difficult economic, social, and emotional impact of COVID-19 on families.
Iran’s government is trying to encourage people to resume some business activities to prevent an economic meltdown. After putting in place a “smart distancing policy,” it allows people to freely move between provinces. But there are fears that these policies will lead to new coronavirus outbreaks in large cities. In the country’s smaller towns, with fewer facilities, these policies could prove deadly, impacting Iran’s economic productivity and existing food production cycles.
With few recommendations to offer people in these dire times, social workers in Iran have taken to giving “feel good” advice. They frequently call on the government to educate people by telling families to stick together in the current hard times and those ahead. This is necessary, they warn, given the lack of public trust in government policies, which means fewer people will probably even follow the government-issued health and safety guidelines. In fact, polls show that over 50 percent of residents in the capital Tehran do not take any of these guidelines seriously.
Iranian organizations that offer social services already receive more than 100 daily calls for help to resolve domestic tensions.
That is why experts are sounding alarm bells to warn that the negative socioeconomic consequences of COVID-19 in Iran might last longer than the time it actually takes to contain the physical harm of the virus. Some active organizations in Iran that offer social and family services say they already receive on average more than 100 daily calls from people seeking help to resolve domestic tensions. There are signs that these frictions involve physical abuse and emotional separation, a term used by sociologists in Iran to define couples who want to divorce but cannot afford to.
Acute hunger and rising poverty as well as high illicit drug addiction rates are also major sources of societal distress. The lack of collective action by society, given the introverted nature of urban Iranian families, means that coronavirus cases in Iran will increase when marginalized groups leave home to find food or drugs.
Moving forward, social and family workers are urging Iranians to overcome some of these challenges by embracing the digital age to build social connectivity and help marginalized communities, and to form a long-term nationwide “corona co-existence plan” which makes living with the virus an acceptable norm among all classes while promoting safety and reducing stress. Families are also urged to learn how to take a break from stress to enjoy staying home, explore ways to build remote businesses and make them more profitable, and build new job markets designed specifically to cope with COVID-19.
Staying home, and loving it, is specifically encouraged by many social workers and psychologists in Iran.
Staying home, and loving it, is specifically encouraged by many social workers and psychologists in Iran. To do so, they advise people to meditate and exercise even if for short amounts of time, eat healthy, raise happy kids regardless of the coronavirus, and avoid watching news for longer than half an hour per day. The news, they say, is not only sensational and stressful, it is also filled with conflicting information which confuses and disunites societies and families.
It is not clear if Iran will keep together as a cohesive society or fall apart in the post-corona era. Local sociologists urge people to quickly give up old habits, like excessive superstition, dishonesty, and deception to take advantage of others and advance one’s own agenda.
People are also asked to avoid holding family and friend gatherings in favor of taking on socially conscious approaches for connecting, ones which serve marginalized groups, health care providers, and families in need. Without these new set of moral and ethical values that demand collective action along with compassion and kindness, it seems unlikely that Iran will be able to conquer the negative social impact of the coronavirus.