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.
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.