Coronavirus: Iran Could Face Humanitarian Catastrophe Under US Sanctions

Pooya Hosseini is the CEO & Founder of the “Armenia-Iran Strategic Cooperation Development Center” foundation. In an interview with CivilNet’s Stella Mehrabekyan, he spoke about the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, the government’s measures and how Iranians celebrate their national holiday of Nowruz. 

– Iranian officials present figures on the coronavirus situation in the country on a daily basis: deaths, new cases, etc. How credible is this information for Iranian society? Is there trust? 

– There are fears in Iran that the government, unsure of how to handle the outbreak, is covering up the extent of the spread of the new coronavirus disease.

Like many other countries, Iran didn’t predict a big domestic coronavirus outbreak. In fact, in the first days of this crisis in Iran, the news was unclear about how many people had actually been infected, given the severe shortages of testing kits in the country.

Because of those shortages, the reality is that no one could guess how far the coronavirus had spread in Iran. Also the number of laboratories testing for coronavirus was too few to simultaneously test and count the real number of coronavirus cases.

The number of laboratories testing for coronavirus increased from two to seven, then to 22 and now the number of laboratories conducting tests has risen to 55. This is why in the first period of the outbreak, the reality may have been far more than the official numbers.

Later on, under the National Corona Management Task Force, health screenings started with a team of 300,000 soldiers and volunteers across the country, especially in the provinces where the virus is common. They aimed to combat the spread of the virus and would go house to house to screen residents and disinfect streets and the government created an application procedure and a website to combat the outbreak.

And more than 80,000 tests for detecting the virus have been conducted so far. However, there are still some people who do not believe in official statistics.

– How is life going these days, during Nowruz celebrations?

– In fact this year, Persian New Year celebrations were transformed by coronavirus in Iran. Iranians now celebrate Nowruz under the shadow of coronavirus. Nowruz is always a time of joy. One of the reasons it’s so joyful is because people get together, not only family but also neighbors. The street celebrations bring together people who often don’t even know each other. So social distancing is very difficult for people because it prevents them from connecting with each other.

A lot of people have tried to replace physical connection with virtual connection. They’ll read poetry to each other over voice messages. They’ll send their friends and family poems or even recipes. There’s a lot of ways that people are trying to communicate with each other using technology. They’re sharing the moments that they’re having, sending it to their grandparents who they haven’t been able to see in weeks because they’re afraid of infecting them, or neighbors greeting each other from balconies from afar and wishing each other a happy Nowruz, while also trying to maintain a physical distance so that they don’t accidentally hurt each other. People of Iran have been advised to stay home during the Nowruz holidays and remain in self-quarantine. For many families, the past few weeks have brought fear and stress.

A few days before Nowruz, Iran’s health minister announced that checkpoints would be placed between cities to limit travel. Also an Iranian traffic police commander announced there has been a 40% decrease in travel with personal cars and a 60% decrease in bus travel compared to previous years.

– President Rouhani addressed American people saying that the sanctions against Iran hamper their fight against the pandemic. How is the health system dealing with this situation? In terms of medical supplies, medications, etc.

– Iran’s medical equipment is badly outdated, a situation made worse by US sanctions on the Iranian economy and few European companies daring to do business in Iran in fear of potential retribution from the US. Moreover, sanctions on Iranian banks make it extremely complicated to carry out transactions with Europe.

It takes three times longer to make a simple banking transaction with Europe under the newly imposed sanctions. In Iran, we are in times of crisis and everything we want to do with Europe is done with a delay. We have had ICU bed shortages for a while and now we can’t buy the number we need for this coronavirus outbreak in a timely way.

In light of the coronavirus outbreak, there is also a shortage of mechanical ventilators, non-invasive ventilators, and HFNC (high flow nasal cannula), all of which Iran is having a hard time purchasing due to sanctions on Iran’s banking system.

Medicine too is in short supply. Right now we are in dire need of antiviral medication. Those who try to import medical goods describe complicated supply chains.

Also Iran’s health workers are on the front lines of the country’s battle with the coronavirus, but many of them lack protective wear to keep them safe while treating infected patients.

For the first time in six decades, Iran has also requested emergency funds from the International Monetary Fund to help it fight the crisis – an appeal that the US, which sits on the IMF’s decision-making board, could potentially veto under the notion of “maximum pressure.” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on March 12 tweeted an itemized list of equipment the health ministry required. It included 10 million personal protective equipment kits and 160 million three-layer protective masks among dozens of other items.

In current times, 1,200 health centers have been operating throughout the country and the number of laboratories conducting tests have been raised to 55. Nearly 40,000 beds in hospitals have been allocated to fight the COVID-19 disease, and 50% of them are occupied by people infected with coronavirus.

Iran urgently needs test kits, face masks, ventilators, hazmat suits, gloves and other supplies. If Iranian pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment manufacturers, because of US sanctions, are unable to establish speedy and reliable means to import raw materials, the country could soon face a humanitarian catastrophe.