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World

Iranians Adjust To Life During COVID-19 Outbreak

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Iran is one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, and it is still waiting for some signs that the spread is slowing. It had more than 60,000 cases and almost 4,000 reported deaths. The government in Iran curtailed festivities during the Iranian New Year's holiday which began last month. But it was initially slow to respond, and some say the government still has not done enough. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul has been speaking to people in Iran about how they see this crisis.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: I reached Soudabeh (ph) and Daoud (ph), a couple in Tehran, via WhatsApp. Like all the Iranians interviewed for this story, they gave only their first names, concerned about possible retribution for speaking to a Western reporter. Soudabeh is an architect, and Daoud is an IT consultant. They both say, looking back, it's easy to see how the authorities missed crucial opportunities to reduce the coronavirus threat. Soudabeh says even before the first deaths from COVID-19 were announced, colleagues at her architecture firm were already falling ill.

SOUDABEH: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: She says a woman she works closely with came down with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. Soudabeh says the colleague took only three or four days off and returned to work. Soudabeh says she was lucky not to catch COVID-19 herself.

Daoud says, in a way, the annual New Year's holiday of Nowruz was a blessing because even though everyone had to stay home instead of attending the usual family gatherings, businesses were used to closing for the holiday. But now, he says, it's unclear how many will be reopening and people need to get back to work.

DAOUD: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: He says many companies, like the one he works for, are too small to stay afloat if they're not bringing in revenue because they have no means of paying salaries or covering their expenses.

Daoud thinks the coronavirus will linger in Iran for months, even though top officials appear to be more optimistic. President Hassan Rouhani announced Sunday that low-risk economic activities could resume in much of Iran within days. He didn't specify which economic activities qualified as low-risk.

In the northwestern city of Rasht, Sara (ph) says she runs a carpentry workshop with her husband. Sara says when she does get out of the house, she's reminded that lower-income people are especially at risk.

SARA: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: "When I go to a posh neighborhood," Sara says, "the streets are empty, very quiet. But in poorer neighborhoods, it gets more crowded." She says, "some people have no other option because if corona doesn't get them, hunger will."

Iran's leaders, meanwhile, continue to blame the United States for the pandemic without providing any evidence. In televised remarks, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he rejected an American offer of medical supplies because the U.S. has its own cases to tend to. Khamenei went on to refer to hard-line allegations that the virus was some kind of bioweapon created by Washington to use against its enemies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: "You Americans are accused of creating this virus," Khamenei said. And while he didn't know if that was true, he added, quote, "when such an accusation is being made what reasonable person would trust you to bring him medicine?"

Soudabeh, the architect, says many people believe their government hid the true risk of the coronavirus early on to keep turnout high during parliamentary elections. But now, as she works from home, the people she talks with don't have time for assigning blame.

SOUDABEH: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: "I hear less about politics these days," she says, "because everyone is focused on the virus and how to survive it."

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