About three weeks since its initial outbreak, the Coronavirus continues to rip throughout Iran. Details regarding the scope of the outbreak have been difficult to confirm, with many continuing to raise questions regarding the government’s official narrative.
This outbreak comes at a delicate time in Iran. The country is still reeling from the political ramifications of the November 2019 protests, the tit-for-tat escalation in January that almost ended in war, and the recently-concluded Parliamentary elections. The country’s medical industry is also under severe pressure as a result of U.S. sanctions, raising questions about the country’s ability to combat the virus. In addition, the virus threatens to further damage the country’s economy, which has also been beleaguered by a recession caused by unilateral U.S. sanctions.
Below is an update of events and how U.S. policy is affecting the crisis:
What We Know: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Spreads in Iran
Status of the Outbreak
- As of March 10th, the official death toll in Iran stands at 291 and those infected at 8,042. The virus has currently affected almost all of Iran’s provinces and is ravaging throughout the country.
- Twenty-three Iranian lawmakers have tested positive for the Coronavirus, two of whom have died according to the Iranian Parliament’s Deputy Speaker Abdolreza Mesri. Iran’s parliament has canceled its open sessions until further notice. In addition, three other senior officials were also killed by the virus: Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a member of a senior advisory council to Iran’s supreme leader, and Hossein Sheikholeslam and Hadi Khosrowshahi, both former high-level diplomats. Mohammad Sadr, another member of the council, announced his infection last week, as did Ebtekar’s fellow cabinet member Reza Rahmani.
- Courageous Iranian medical professionals have been working nonstop to treat patients and educate the public on protocols. They have encouraged a self-imposed quarantine, which many citizens have taken seriously by working from home and avoiding public spaces and gatherings
- The state began to implement quarantine measures and has moved to close schools and implement practices to sterilize public spaces. This week the state moved to temporarily free 70,000 prisoners as pressure mounted overcrowded prisons that can act as a hotbed for virus transmission.
- The families of foreign nationals held in Iranian prisons raised concerns over the condition of their loved ones. The Washington Post reported, after European diplomatic efforts, British-Iranian dual national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, would be temporarily freed to be with her family in Tehran.
- After a slow response both domestically and internationally, countries have begun easing some restrictions on Iran. The United States Treasury moved to ease restrictions on the Central Bank of Iran on humanitarian trade and the E3—Germany, France, and the U.K.—committed to “material and financial support” to curb the spread of the virus in Iran.
- Following the spread of the virus throughout Iran, neighboring countries took measures to prevent the spread of the disease. Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Armenia, and Afghanistan have imposed travel and immigration restrictions on Iran, and Georgia, Tajikistan, and Oman have suspended direct flights with Iran.
- This comes after multiple Middle Eastern countries confirmed their first cases of the coronavirus, the majority of which were travelers who had recently been to Iran. With neighboring countries ravaged by war, medical systems either in disarray and underfunded, and the constant migration of pilgrims and immigrant workers, the Middle East is seen by many experts as the perfect storm for global contagion.
- President Donald Trump said on Feb. 29 that he was ready to help Iran deal with its increasingly deadly outbreak of coronavirus if Iran asks for assistance. “If we can help the Iranians with this problem, we are certainly willing to do so…. all they have to do is ask.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rejected the offer, stating “those who have deprived the people of even medicine and food through sanctions… They appear with a mask of sympathy…Our people know well that you are lying.”
- Iran’s refusal of the aid was predictable. Accepting aid from the U.S. while under crushing U.S. sanctions would have been a political poison pill. Currently, these sanctions are decimating Iran’s medical industry and have made the crisis worse. This all while the government’s response has exacerbated the spread of the virus.
The Government’s Bungled Response
- The outbreak of the disease began in the religious city of Qom, 150 km southwest of Tehran. The government announced some emergency measures to combat the spread of the disease. They shut down all schools and seminaries in Qom, canceled all flights to and from China, and announced a suspension of all religious gatherings. The Health Ministry also closed movie theaters and concert events throughout the country and has forced professional soccer games to be played without spectators.
- Despite efforts to contain the virus, people in Iran have become increasingly skeptical of the government response to the crisis and their ability to contain it. On Tuesday, February 18th, the Iranian government made a statement saying that no one in the country is infected with the virus only to reverse it the next day after two people died from the virus.
- These contradictory statements come after the Iranian government covered-up its involvement in the shooting down of a civilian airliner in early January, revealing three days later that the IRGC had mistakenly shot it down.
- A BBC report on Feb. 29th indicated that over 200 people died from the disease, a stark contrast from the government’s claims that only 36 have died from the disease. Currently, the government’s official death toll is over 200.
- On March 8th, Gholam-Ali Jafarzadeh-Imananabadi, a lawmaker from Gilan Province said that 90% of hospital beds are taken up by coronavirus patients and that at least 30 people were dying in his densely populated coastal region every day. He claimed that half of the medical staff of the province have now contracted the virus. “We can’t even protect the lives of our health workers.”
- Those on the frontlines combatting the virus have had a shortage of protective gear such as masks, gloves, gowns, contributing to the over 12 doctors and nurses who have died from the disease.
- Meanwhile, Iranian officials are still refusing to disclose the death toll in Tehran, Qom and Gilan provinces, the worst affected parts of the country. A local official in Gilan said on Sunday that at least 200 have died in the province, with some other Persian language sources putting the death toll at over 2,000.
Impact of U.S. Sanctions on the Crisis
- The U.S. sanctions had devastated Iran’s medical industry, crippling the country’s ability to combat the virus. According to an October 2019 Human Rights Watch report, the United States ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has “drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.”
- With so many restrictions and sanctions to contend with, Iran’s medical industry is limited in its ability to purchase equipment rapidly and adapt to changing circumstances on the ground in fighting the epidemic.
- In a letter sent by Dr. Abolfazl Fateh, an Iranian physician and former advisor to 2009 presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, to the World Health Organization, he cites that the “country is under unprecedented and extreme sanctions put in place by the United States…Due to the harsh conditions,” they are experiencing a shortage in “laboratory kits, masks, protective gowns for medical staff, ambulances, specialized medicines, antiseptics, and…the latest information on successful trials in combating this virus.”
- Sanctions have also choked off what remaining humanitarian channels were left. In September 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Iran’s Central Bank under terrorism authorities. The Central Bank of Iran, as the custodian of Iran’s foreign currency reserves, is integral to the exchange of humanitarian goods like food and medicine.
- This decision was partially reversed when the Treasury Department licensed humanitarian trade involving the Central Bank of Iran (CBI). However, this reversal does not mitigate the harm done to Iran’s public health sector in recent months, and it remains to be seen whether foreign banks will meaningfully engage with Iran to facilitate humanitarian trade to combat the outbreak.
- In addition, by designating Iran a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Trump administration has severed what limited remaining ties Iran has to the global financial system. This has exacerbated fears among the NGO and business community of providing humanitarian aid to Iran, prompting many from processing humanitarian-related transactions.
How Can I Help?
- Relief International has launched a campaign to assist in the response to the Coronavirus in Iran, and will be providing face masks, sanitizer, test kits and treatment to affected individuals. Relief International has a license to conduct relief work in Iran and accepts contributions from Americans.
- Moms Against Poverty has rolled out a campaign to deliver relief to address the Coronavirus crisis, and will be providing masks, surgical gloves, disinfectant wipes, alcohol wipes, and hand sanitizers to medical clinics and hospitals serving the vulnerable communities, as well as food and other basic necessities to children and families affected. They have a permit to engage in relief efforts and are accepting donations to support their work.
- The Child Foundation is collecting donations to provide medical supplies for healthcare workers and communities in Afghanistan and Iran. They plan to shift their resources as needed based on which governments are accepting medical equipment and which communities are in most need.
In addition, if you would like more information on the recent Travel Ban affecting those entering the United States from Iran, please see our FAQ on the Travel Ban.
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