Coronavirus infection

Surge in Iran

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Patients infected with the new coronavirus at a hospital in Tehran on March 8. Photo: Mohammad Ghadamali/AP

Iran, its health care system crippled by U.S. sanctions, appeals for a global effort to curtail the spike in coronavirus infection as the death toll and confirmed cases in the country keep mounting.

Iran is among the countries worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic. As of March 19, the country reported 1,248 deaths and 18,407 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Iran currently has the third highest recorded infection rate after China and Italy, closely followed by Spain with 18,077 confirmed cases and 833 deaths. Unlike in most of the other 160 countries, the coronavirus spike in Iran has hit top levels of the government. Among those who tested positive for the virus are Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar and Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi. Masoumeh Ebtekar is President Hassan Rouhani’s deputy for women’s affairs and the highest-ranking woman in the government. More than nine other top officials, including members of parliament, senior clerics and military officers, have succumbed to the epidemic.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was forced to issue an edict in the second week of March prohibiting his countrymen from undertaking unnecessary travel. He warned that more than a million Iranians were at risk from the virus. In the third week of March, the government ordered temporary release of 85,000 prisoners in order to curtail spread of the virus in prisons. To mark the Persian New Year, Nowruz, on March 20, Khamenei pardoned 10,000 prisoners, many of them political detainees. But the government found it difficult to keep people from travelling and crowds from visiting the bazaars in view of Nowruz.

However, medical experts believe that many more Iranian lives could have been saved if easy access to life-saving drugs and good hospital care had been available. The draconian sanctions imposed on the country by the United States have severely hampered the government’s ability to tackle the epidemic effectively.

President Hassan Rouhani, in a letter to a number of world leaders, emphasised that a united global effort was needed to combat the pandemic. “No country can manage this huge dangerous crisis alone, let alone if it has many difficulties accessing international financial markets” He urged the international community to come to the aid of Iran at this critical juncture as the death toll from the disease was rising at an alarming rate. “There is no doubt that this is a global crisis. Tehran and Qom are not far away from Paris, London or New York, and any policy that weakens the economic structure and medical system, and limits financial resources for crisis management, will have direct effects on the fight against the epidemic in other countries…. It is time for the international community to stand up to the illegal and inhumane bullying and not let the unjust U.S. sanctions against Iran affect the fight against the deadly virus,” he stated in the letter.

The U.S. sanctions and policy of “maximum pressure” have, in the past two years, had a disruptive effect on Iran’s economy and health care system. International banks decline to do business with Iran even on loans relating to the purchase of essential medicines and medical devices. The Donald Trump administration has objected, on flimsy grounds, to the despatch of humanitarian aid to Iran. Even as the pandemic was raging, the Trump administration imposed additional sanctions on Iran in mid March as part of its “maximum pressure campaign” against the country. Influential lobbying groups close to the Trump administration have been working overtime to put pressure on pharmaceutical firms to end all business dealings with Iran, including those relating to the supply of life-saving drugs.

Tyler Cullis, a U.S. lawyer specialising in sanctions law, told The Intercept, a web journal, that these “outside groups” had sought to “impose reputational costs on companies that engage in lawful and legitimate trade with Iran, including humanitarian trade”.

Iran seeks emergency funding

Iran has requested a $5-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as “emergency funding” to combat the pandemic. The IMF rejected a similar request made by the Venezuelan government on the pretext that the government in Caracas lacked international legitimacy. Venezuela, too, like Iran, faces unilateral U.S. sanctions, and the cash-strapped Nicolas Maduro government is waging an uphill battle against the pandemic with the help of Cuba and China.

The Iranian government has said that since the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions in 2018, the country has lost $200 billion in foreign exchange income and investment. China has stepped in by sending medical staff and tonnes of medical supplies. China and Russia have called upon the U.S. to lift the sanctions on Iran. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that sanctions were hampering Iran’s efforts to counter the virus and the delivery of humanitarian aid. There is a shortage of testing kits and other medical equipment in the country. Iran until recently had one of the best public health systems in the region.

The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that the sanctions were “anti-human” and that they were “a powerful obstacle to the effective fight against the infection”. On paper, humanitarian aid is exempted from U.S. sanctions but the fact is that companies and banks have stopped interacting with Iran, fearing secondary U.S. sanctions.

“Unlawful U.S. sanctions drained Iran’s economic resources, impairing its ability to fight COVID-19,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted. “They literally kill innocents”. Zarif praised the European Union (E.U.) for despatching humanitarian aid to combat the pandemic. However, he wanted the E.U. to do more and totally sidestep the unilateral U.S. sanctions.

U.S. policy–makers, however, seem to be betting that the virus would cause enough death and sow confusion in the Iranian leadership that would impact decision-making. The American media are already full of stories about alleged infighting in the Iranian government regarding the handling of the pandemic. General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command responsible for West Asia, said that because the virus affected the upper echelons of the Iranian leadership, they would find “it a lot harder” to make decisions.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Council, admitted that the virus had had “a strategic impact” as it had complemented the U.S. strategy of further isolating Iran. Neighbouring countries have all shut their borders with Iran.

By mid March, Iranian authorities had tested more than 14 million citizens for the coronavirus. The country has a population of 83 million. Health Minister Saeed Namaki said that the screening process helped in the reduction of hospital referrals. Iran has taken stringent measures to contain the virus. The government has ordered the shutting down of important shrines in Qom, Mashad and Tehran that are visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims every day. In all, 234 Indian pilgrims who were in Iran have tested positive for the virus.

Ayatollah Khamenei issued an order in the second week of March for the country’s armed forces to be deployed to combat the virus. Major General Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said that volunteers attached to the armed forces would check every household to identify infected people and set up field hospitals to treat them.

Many leading Iranian clerics have criticised the order on the closure of mosques. Demonstrations broke out in Mashad and Qom. They want the pilgrimage sites to be opened despite the rapid spread of the virus. Millions of people from the region visit the holy Shia sites in Iran and Iraq annually. Qom is suspected to have been the epicentre of the virus in Iran. The first two coronavirus deaths were reported in the third week of February. The Fatimeh Masumah shrine in Qom is considered a place of healing by the Shia faithful. Pilgrims who visited the shrine from Azerbaijan, India, Pakistan and other countries in the region have come down with the virus.

Deputy Health Minister Harirchi, who had tested positive and is in quarantine, issued an emotional appeal to all Iranians to take care of themselves. “This is a democratic virus, and it does not distinguish between the poor and the rich, statesman and ordinary citizen. It may affect a number of people,” he cautioned.

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