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Coronavirus In Iran And The Geopolitics Of Sanctions

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.
Iranian Firefighters disinfect streets in the capital Tehran in a bid to halt the wild spread of coronavirus on March 13 2020. Iranian forces will clear the streets nationwide within 24 hours and all citizens will be checked for the new coronavirus in a bid to halt its spread, the military said. (Photo by – / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Iran has been one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus outside of mainland China where it originated. Iran reported its first confirmed case of the coronavirus infection on February 19, 2020 in Qom (the epicenter of the disease’s spread in the country). As of April 4, 2020, Iran has the sixth-highest number of COVID-19 deaths after Italy, Spain, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, and the seventh-highest number of SARS-CoV-2 cases in the world.

Iran, like many other countries, was slow to take measures in the first two weeks of the outbreak as nobody knew the that COVID-19 would get this deadly. The coronavirus outbreak is exploding in Iran, with one person dying from the disease every ten minutes. Officials are scrambling to contain the virus, as well as the fears it has sown.

The government closed schools, universities and cultural centres, and cancelled Friday prayer in several provinces. Iran temporarily released 54,000 people from prisons in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus in crowded jails. Less than 43% of Iranian voters turned out for the parliamentary election on February 21, the lowest rate of participation since the 1979 Revolution.

While turning the pages of history, I found COVID-19 as the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster since World War II unfold. All countries are battling the coronavirus, but what bothers me and everyone else is that Iran faces the coronavirus as well as Sanctions. Iran is the worst-affected country in the Middle-East which is grappling with tens and thousands of COVID-19 cases.

As a result of the U.S. imposed economic sanctions, Iran’s economy has faltered, leading to high inflation on basic goods and medicine. The Government and Iranian Health Ministry, while revealing the true reasons behind Tehran’s delay in detecting the first infections, blamed the U.S. sanctions that impeded the import of laboratory reagents and other medical supplies necessary to diagnose the disease.

Sanctions have both weakened Iran’s currency and made it difficult for Iran to access its foreign exchange reserves, further adding to the time and cost of any emergency purchases. The country is facing an acute shortage of funds and supplies. Health workers do not have access to safety equipment, and as a result, many of them have contracted the virus themselves.

Sanctions not only restricted Iran’s import of medical supplies, drugs, and laboratory devices, but also exceeded them to restrict Tehran’s access to Johns Hopkins University’s website, which provides an interactive map for tracking epidemic statistics. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani wrote a public letter to world leaders asking for help, saying that his country doesn’t have access to international markets due to the sanctions against Iran.

Although Tehran has obtained some assistance from WHO, UNICEF, Turkey, China, Austria, Germany, Britain, and France to fight the coronavirus, it has been too little too late. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, neighboring states including major trading partners such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey, have closed their borders to the Islamic Republic to prevent the spread of the virus.

The question is how bad could it get?

Well, it has the potential to be much worse than in other countries. Countries like China, America, France, and Italy have economic resources and a high degree of government efficiency. In Iran, you have a government that is already on its knees because of economic sanctions. Iran is facing a perfect storm of different crises: political, economic, social, and into this fix now comes the coronavirus. This is threatening to get completely out of hand. Iran is experiencing a situation parallel to what it experienced during the Iran-Iraq War. Iran’s health care system will continue to fight the coronavirus without all the necessary resources.

The situation in Iran is so bad that Iran has requested a $5 billion loan from the IMF. This is the first time for some 60 years that Iran has sought IMF funds. Given the strains between Washington and Tehran, and the U.S. as a part of the IMF’s decision-making board, Iran’s apprehension is that the U.S. may create obstacles that may result in Iran not being able to get the requested $5 Billion from the IMF. Not only that, but the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has also blacklisted Iran which means that even if the IMF agrees to provide the loan, banks and financial institutions can block such transactions.

“Coronavirus is an opportunity for the Trump-led U.S. government to lower the tensions with Iran and to send a positive message to the international community.”

Although the U.S. administration says “humanitarian and medical needs” are exempt from sanctions, few European companies dare to do business in Iran in fear of potential retribution from the U.S. Moreover, sanctions on Iranian banks make it highly complicated to carry out transactions with Europe. Global health experts call on U.S. sanctions to be relaxed keeping in mind the current crisis. Pakistan, Russia, and China have also demanded the U.S. to lift economic sanctions from the Islamic Republic of Iran till the COVID-19 Pandemic is over. Pakistan calls U.S. sanctions against Iran as “cruel” and “unfair”.

The Trump administration will need to decide whether this is an opportunity to create a small opening with Tehran along sound humanitarian grounds, or whether the mounting pressure on the regime from both sanctions and now the coronavirus is a moment to double-down. Coronavirus is an opportunity for the U.S. to lower the tensions with Iran and to send a positive message to the international community.

The situation is very daring and it should be taken seriously by every country. We live in a truly inter-connected world however much we may try to obliterate this fact. Global solidarity by engaging with Iran’s health sector will slow the overall global transmission of the virus. Since it is a pandemic, and no country or geographical border can stop this. Humanity must unite to fight this pandemic, else it is going to get worse before it gets better, and that is the global understanding as of now.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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