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Iran says cannot shut down economy despite worsening virus outbreak

President Hassan Rouhani said Iran must continue 'economic, social and cultural activities while observing health protocols'
President Hassan Rouhani said Iran must continue 'economic, social and cultural activities while observing health protocols' - Iranian Presidency/AFP/File
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Tehran (AFP)

Iran said on Saturday that it cannot afford to shut down its sanctions-hit economy, even as the Middle East's deadliest coronavirus outbreak worsens with record-high death tolls and rising infections.

Iran must continue "economic, social and cultural activities while observing health protocols", President Hassan Rouhani said during a televised virus taskforce meeting.

"The simplest solution is to close down all activities, (but) the next day, people would come out to protest the (resulting) chaos, hunger, hardship and pressure," he added.

The Islamic republic has been struggling since late February to contain the country's COVID-19 outbreak, which has killed over 12,400 people and infected more than 252,000.

Deaths from the respiratory disease hit 221 on Thursday -- a single-day record for Iran.

The country closed schools, cancelled public events and banned movement between its 31 provinces in March, but Rouhani's government progressively lifted restrictions from April to reopen its sanctions-hit economy.

The outbreak's rising toll has prompted authorities to make wearing masks mandatory in enclosed public spaces and to allow the hardest hit provinces to reimpose restrictive measures.

Iran has suffered a sharp economic downturn after US President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear agreement in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran's economy will shrink by six percent this year.

"It is not possible to keep businesses and economic activities shut down in the long-term," Rouhani said, emphasising that "the people will not accept this".

Health Minister Said Namaki warned on Wednesday of a potential "revolt over poverty" and blamed US sanctions for the government's "empty coffers".

The reopening of the economy "was not over our ignorance (of the virus' dangers), but it was due to us being on our knees against an economy that could take no more", Namaki said on state television.

US sanctions targeted vital oil sales and banking relations, among other sectors, forcing Iran to rely on non-oil exports, which have dropped as borders were closed to stem the spread of the virus.

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