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February 25, 2020

Coronavirus FAQs

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For an updated version of the FAQ, please go HERE.

A day before Iran’s parliamentary elections, news broke in Iran that the Coronavirus, which has spread throughout the world, had reached Iran. Details regarding the scope of the outbreak have been difficult to confirm, with many raising 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 economy is also under severe pressure as a result of U.S. sanctions, raising questions about the country’s ability to combat the virus. 

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

  • According to Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi statement, 100 people have been infected with the virus and 16 people have died. Qom province is the worst hit, with 34 cases, according to the health ministry. The source of the virus is considered to be a group of Chinese workers who were working on a solar power plant in Qom. 
  • Harirchi said on Tuesday in a press conference that he was also infected with the virus. This comes as fears of a global pandemic widen and that Iran might be a focal point for the spread of the disease. 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. 
  • 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. 

The Government’s Bungled Response

  • The vast majority of cases so far have been centralized in Qom. 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. They also created a national committee of government officials, physicians, and scientists to fight the virus. 
  • 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. 
  •  According to one Iranian MP representing Qom, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, more than 50 have died from the disease, rebutting the central government’s claims. He went on to say the first case was three weeks ago and called on the health minister to resign. 
  • Deputy Minister Harirchi disputed Farahani’s claims, stating that he would resign if the number of dead in Qom were to reach even one-quarter of 50. Also, media reports from Iranian journalists suggest that over 900 Iranians are suspected of having the virus and are currently being tested. 
  • In a shocking revelation, Dr. Mohammad Reza Qadir, Qom’s top health official confirmed that he was infected with the disease and that the situation “was dire in Qom and the disease is spread across the city.” He went on to say that healthy ministry officials told him and his staff “not to publish statistics” related to the coronavirus. 
  • Adding to the skepticism of the government account has been the virus’ mortality rate in Iran, which according to officials numbers is 19%. This figure is significantly higher than the mortality rate in China, the epicenter of the virus, which is 2.8% for men and 1.7% for women. 
  • This discrepancy could be a combination of many things, including the dire state of Iran’s medical industry as a result of sanctions, a cover-up by government officials of the full scale of the epidemic, or the country’s lack of testing kits to diagnose the disease. 

 

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. 
  • 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. 
  • Foreign entities engaging in humanitarian-related trade with Iran are increasingly fearful that such transactions could be sanctionable, making it near impossible for Iranian pharmaceutical companies and hospitals to pay for crucial supplies, medicine, and medical devices. 
  • 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. 
  • In the midst of the epidemic, Iranian physicians have voiced their concerns about the effects of sanctions on their ability to fight to combat the virus. In a letter sent by Dr. Abolfazl Fateh, an Iranian physician and former advisor to former 2009 presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, to the World Health Organization, he cities shortages in “laboratory kits, masks, protective gowns for medical staff, ambulances, specialized medicines, antiseptics, and…the latest information on successful trials in combating this virus.”

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.
  • We will update this section if other humanitarian groups confirm they are planning relief efforts.

Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have questions or would like to discuss these issues in greater detail. 

Photo via CNN

 

 

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