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COVID-19: Iran Loosens Restrictions; Russian Cases Spike

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Iranian artists volunteered to make protective face masks for poor people amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic at the Hafez theater in Tehran.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 167,000 with more than 2.43 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Iran

Iran has further loosened coronavirus restrictions, opening intercity highways and shopping malls even as the country continues to grapple with the highest number of confirmed cases in the region.

The move, which took effect April 20, was an effort to restart the country's economy which had already been faltering prior to the pandemic due to punishing Western sanctions.

An Iranian man wearing personal protective equipment shops at the Grand Bazaar in the capital, Tehran.
An Iranian man wearing personal protective equipment shops at the Grand Bazaar in the capital, Tehran.

More than 5,100 people have died in Iran with more than 82,000 reported cases, according to official figures.

Iran's parliament, however, has suggested the death toll might be nearly double that and overall cases vastly underreported.

The looser restrictions include retailers such as high-end shopping malls and even Tehran's famous Grand Bazaar.

Other businesses including restaurants and sports gyms remain closed.

Officials downplayed the crisis for weeks, even as top officials became infected. President Hassan Rohani refused to impose 24-hour lockdowns like other countries have.

Mosques and religious shrines have, however, been shuttered after officials concluded that they may have played an important role in spreading the virus.

With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan scheduled to begin on April 23, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has suggested that mass gatherings may be barred throughout the month.

The economy, which has recorded up to 20 percent unemployment and 40 percent inflation, has been struggling due to harsh U.S. sanctions that have blocked the sale of crude oil abroad.

The sanctions were imposed after U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew Washington from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.

Russia

Russia has recorded another sharp jump in total coronavirus cases even as the country's health minister said some of the government's restrictions were helping to blunt the rate of increase.

Mikhail Murashko's comments, in an interview on April 20 on state TV, came a day after President Vladimir Putin proclaimed that the country's coronavirus situation was "fully under control."

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The government task force overseeing the national response to the virus said that new cases jumped by more than 4,200 over the past day, rising to 47,121 cumulative cases. The death toll stood at 405 as of April 20.

The continued rise in figures comes despite Russia taking some early, aggressive moves to respond to the spreading virus, including shutting down its border with China, where the virus first emerged. But the government moved more slowly to impose social-distancing guidelines, to shutter commercial businesses, and to push employers to have employees work from home.

Even before many European nations started imposing restrictions, Moscow moved to shut down much of the country's vast border with China, where the virus first emerged.

"We can see that social distancing and self-isolation measures have been effective," Murashko said in the interview with Rossia-24 TV.

He said fewer seriously ill patients were being admitted to hospitals.

A day earlier, in a recorded video address to mark the Orthodox Easter holiday, Putin sought to reassure Russians that the government was succeeding in curtailing the disease's spread.

"All branches of governments are working rhythmically, responsibly, in an organized manner," Putin said. "The situation is under full control."

A week earlier, however, Putin gave a candid assessment of the country's fight so far, warning that the peak in cases was yet to come.

"We have many problems and we don't have much to brag about," Putin told a televised meeting of cabinet officials. "We are not past the peak of the epidemic, especially not in Moscow."

Meanwhile, hundreds of people took the streets of North Ossetia’s regional capital, protesting coronavirus measures that have squeezed the local economy and demanding the governor resign.

Many of the participants in the April 20 demonstration in Vladikavkaz refused to wear masks, spurning guidance of local and national health officials who have sought to stem the spread of the virus.

Police detained several demonstrators, while much of the crowd of several hundred managed to march to the city’s central square, where they chanted for regional Governor Vyacheslav Bitarov to meet with them.

Many of the demonstrators complained they lacked information about the virus and its victims. Some also said they had lost jobs because of “self-isolation” measures imposed to try to stem the spread of the virus.

Bitarov later met with the protesters and called on them to go home.

“I didn’t make up this disease and there’s one treatment: stay home,” he told the crowd.

However, the demonstrators refused to leave the square. An RFE/RL correspondent reported from the site that the number of protesters increased in the afternoon to about 1,000.

Leaders of opposition groups who were among the protesters demanded the dismissal of the region's government and parliament before May 8, the formation of a new government led by opposition politician Vitaly Kaloyev, and a referendum on the direct election of the regional leader.

A group of protesters and Bitarov, who was appointed by Putin in February 2016, then moved into the local government building to discuss the demands.

The region, which borders Chechnya and Georgia, has reported 145 total cases of the coronavirus, and two deaths.

Like other major cities in Russia, Vladikavkaz has imposed quarantine and self-isolation measures on the city's 300,000 residents.

Serbia

The Serbian government will loosen strict lockdown measures implemented last month to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Some small businesses and markets including car mechanics, shoemakers, dry cleaners, bookshops, and other services will be allowed to reopen on April 21.

The government said businesses must enforce strict prevention measures such as wearing a face covering, gloves, and disinfecting. Shopping malls, cafes, restaurants, schools, and kindergartens will remain closed.

A night curfew will be shortened by one hour and an around-the-clock lockdown for people aged 65 and above will also be eased, allowing them to leave their homes for 30-minute walks on three evenings a week.

"The government also calls on employers in the construction industry to resume work... while adhering to protection measures and rules of social distancing," the government said in a statement.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced last month some of the strictest measures in Europe as part of a state of emergency to slow the spread of the virus.

Over the weekend, the government imposed an 84-hour curfew to prevent socializing during the Orthodox Christian Easter on April 19.

Serbia has reported 6,630 coronavirus infections and 125 fatalities.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has prolonged by three weeks some restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus while easing some earlier limitations.

The Justice Ministry said in a statement that the restrictions that were supposed to end on April 20 will now be in place until May 10.

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According to the statement, the sale of non-food items will now be allowed via mobile outlets. All shops and stores, except those selling groceries, were temporarily closed in Tashkent, the capital, and adjacent districts, starting March 24.

The commission also ruled that all pensions will be electronically paid to the payment cards of recipients without any fees and a system of electronic signing documents will be introduced.

One new restriction introduced is that it will now be mandatory for all taxi drivers to wear masks, gloves, and individual protective robes while providing services to clients.

The statement also says that all visas issued to foreign nationals stuck in Uzbekistan due to the coronavirus restrictions will be automatically extended until June 1.

Uzbekistan's Sanitary Inspector-General Nurmat Otabekov said on April 20 that the number of cases in the country was at least 1,565, including five deaths.

Kazakhstan

In neighboring Kazakhstan, all industrial facilities, construction businesses, transportation and storage operations, automobile services, repair points for electronic devices, some banks, and notary offices could resume operations as of April 20.

The state of emergency over the outbreak in Kazakhstan was imposed until April 30.

Kazakh health authorities said on April 20 that the number of coronavirus cases in the country was 1,757, including 19 deaths.

Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan/Turkmenistan

In Kyrgyzstan, as of April 20, 568 cases were registered, including seven deaths.

Two other Central Asian countries -- Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- have not officially declared any coronavirus cases. But experts are skeptical of the claims given the lack of transparency within their governments and a lack of independent media.

The two have recently bucked the global trend of suspending sports events during the crisis by resuming their national soccer leagues.

Tajikistan began its season with matches held behind closed doors, while Turkmenistan at the weekend opened stadiums for its top league.

With reporting by Interfax, AP, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Russian, Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik, and Kyrgyz services
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