The eerie silence in the deserted streets of Tehran is in sharp contrast to the palpable buzz in hospitals these days with the novel coronavirus pandemic assuming alarming proportions and cases mounting.
The total number of confirmed cases has reached 18,407 with the death toll climbing to 1,284. According to the Health Ministry, around 50 new cases and six deaths are reported every hour across the country.
While new cases have seen an inconsistent increase, the fatalities are surging steadily and alarmingly. Thursday’s death toll of 149 is the highest single-day coronavirus death toll in Iran.
The epicenter of the epidemic in Iran has over the past two weeks shifted from the city of Qom, located 150 kilometers south of Tehran, where the first two cases were reported on Feb. 19, to Tehran – the country’s political and financial nerve center.
The Hassan Rouhani government has come under severe criticism in international media for its ‘mismanagement’ and ‘late response’ to the health crisis, which has brought life to a standstill in Iran.
But the government alone is not to be blamed, say experts. U.S. sanctions against Iran, they argue, have seriously obstructed efforts to fight the pandemic and save lives.
The administration of Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, terming it “a giant fiction,” re-imposed sanctions on Tehran and called for “maximum pressure,” a move choreographed by his former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
In the wake of a humanitarian crisis in Iran, with thousands fighting for their lives in hospitals, calls for easing sanctions to allow Iran to effectively respond to the crisis are growing louder.
Efforts by Iran’s healthcare workforce to fight the pandemic have been stymied by an acute shortage of medicine and equipment as Iran is not able to import them due to U.S. sanctions.
Last week, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a list of items required by the Ministry of Health to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which included ventilators, electroshock devices, nebulizer devices, infusion pumps, CT Scan 16 Slice machines, eco-sonography devices, digital x-ray machines, diagnostic test kits, protective masks and disposable gloves.
While China, where the pandemic originated, has been generously sending aid to Iran, other countries like Turkey, Qatar, Russia, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and France have also contributed, which was duly acknowledged by the Foreign Ministry, which said “the government and people of Iran never forget their friends during hardship.”
The U.S., on the other hand, has shown no signs so far that they intend to ease the situation for the government and people of Iran. This week, they announced new sanctions, targeting the country’s petrochemical industry.
Sayed Mohammad Marandi, a political commentator and professor at Tehran University, termed the new sanctions “sadistic.”
“The new sanctions can only be interpreted as an attempt to spread COVID-19 in Iran,” he said.
“The Trump regime seeks an uncontrollable situation where COVID-19 overwhelms Iran’s healthcare system and hospitals. The silence of Western reporters, pundits, media and governments is evil.”
Sina Kawoosh, a regional observer based in Tehran, said the sanctions are meant to “deal another blow” to an already struggling economy, which come “in the middle of a global pandemic that is wreaking havoc in Iran, killing hundreds every day.”
Kawoosh drew a parallel between this situation and what the U.S. did in North Korea in 1994.
“Being a superpower doesn’t mean taking advantage of the situation but being responsible and putting humanitarian interests first,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has meant that his administration has gone a step further than his predecessors in dealing with Iran.
“Even George Bush had ordered the easing of sanctions on Iran in 2004 after a devastating earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam. In 2012, Barack Obama eased sanctions on Iran after deadly earthquakes hit many villages in northwestern Iran,” said Mahdi Mohammadi, an analyst and university professor in Tehran. “Is it really so difficult for Trump to do what Bush and Obama did?”
Mohammadi said foreign companies and banks are disinclined to engage in any business with Iran, even in medicine, fearing “repercussions from the U.S. government and hawkish groups in the U.S”.
With the coronavirus numbers frighteningly piling up, people in Iran are calling for an “end to the embargo.” Some have taken to social media with hashtags like #LiftIranSanctions and #EndIranEmbargo.
“It is a crime against humanity to prevent people’s access to medicine at a time of pandemic,” said Reza Alizadeh, a social and political activist from Qom.
“The scenes in hospitals today are just heartbreaking, where doctors and nurses are working under extremely challenging conditions with acute shortages of medicine and equipment.”
Alizadeh, who has been volunteering at a hospital in Qom, says the people of Iran would remember who stood by them in their difficult time.
“History will remember how people of Iran were choked to death by denying them access to medicine and all those who were complicit in it,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“The people of America must stand up and force their government to change its course on Iran,” said Fatemeh, an artist and school teacher based in the Iranian city of Simnan. “This isn’t anymore about the Iranian government; the people of Iran are suffering.”
The Iranian government has also reached out to the global community for help and cooperation in combating the pandemic, urging them to raise their voices against the “unilateral” U.S. sanctions on Iran.
“No state is able to manage the dangerous crisis alone,” Rouhani wrote in a letter addressed to global leaders.
“Dealing with the situation for a country that is faced with many difficulties in accessing the international financial markets and in supplying the necessary goods is extremely hard.”
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in which he claimed that the U.S. sanctions on legal trade had hampered the procurement of medicine and medical equipment by Iran, creating obstacles in efforts to overcome the health crisis.
Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, also urged the U.S. to “de-politicize this humanitarian endeavor and lift sanctions.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry says despite U.S. claims that medical items do not come under sanctions, the U.S. government has blocked the channels and not allowed financial resources in other countries to enter via the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA).
“We have been negotiating with one of the countries, and they claim that Americans are creating roadblocks for resources to enter Iran,” said ministry spokesman S.A. Mousavi.
So far, 16 trillion rials (around $380 million) have been allocated to the National Headquarters for Fighting Coronavirus and the country’s medical universities, according to Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, the head of Iran’s Planning and Budget Organization.
In addition to supporting low-income families to fight the disease, he said the government has tried to strengthen the healthcare system.
Meanwhile, Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in emergency funding to overcome the health crisis in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, marking the first time in 60 years that it is seeking financial aid from the IMF.
Iran’s Central Bank governor Abdulnaser Hemmati has written to IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, stressing Iran’s “right to benefit from the fund of $50 billion Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI).”
“Given the size of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s quota in the fund, it calls for the use of the RFI fast financing facility of around $5 billion,” said the letter.