Iran, Already vulnerable, Ravaged by Coronavirus

Hospitals overflowing and ill-equipped, a deprived and desperate populace, the police and military mobilised to control the country: Covid-19’s progress through Iran has been blistering. Faced with a health and social crisis, the authorities are turning to the IMF for emergency aid, and demanding that sanctions be lifted.

Downtown Tehran, 23 February 2020

For the first time in 60 years, Iran on 12 March called on the IMF for aid, requesting the urgent release of a $5 bn package. The foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the aim of the initiative is to help his country combat the coronavirus. Just the day before, the IMF had expressed concern about the global spread of the epidemic and its economic impact, calling for “a coordinated international response.” The same day, the minister’s spokesman, Seyed Abbas Musavi, tweeted that a letter had been sent to the UN Secretary-General “stressing the need for all the illegal unilateral sanctions imposed by the US to be lifted in order to counter the coronavirus.”

Every province affected

Iran ranks third behind China and Italy among the countries worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic. By 18 March the number of cases had reached 17,361, and the death toll rose to 1,135. That included only cases that had been tested and diagnosed. Covid-19 has reached all 31 of the country’s provinces, with Tehran well ahead (23.8% of the cases), followed by Mazandaran and Gilan on the Caspian Sea (8.6% and 6.5%) and Isfahan and Qom in the centre (7.6% and 5.7%). The southern provinces have been less affected, no doubt because of their distance from the seat of the epidemic, although the warmer climate could be another factor. When the first case was announced in Iran on 19 February, the origin of the infection was little understood. Some believed it was the repatriation of Iranian nationals from China by Iran’s Mahan airline. Others accused a businessman who had been there. Chinese students at a Qoranic school in Qom also fell under suspicion.

Daily official figures show a rise in the death rate from coronavirus: since 8 March, the ratio of deaths to confirmed cases more than tripled, from 2.5% to 7.3%. Some deputies, moreover, dispute the official figures. Gholamali Jafarzadeh, MP for Rasht, declared: “I don’t want to spread panic, but I have to be frank and say that many people with corona symptoms have died in our province without being included in the figures, because they had not been tested.”

A number of political figures have been diagnosed positive, including 23 out of 100 members of the Majles (parliament) who had been tested. Massoumeh Ebtekar, Vice-President for Women and the Family, Eshaq Jahangiri, senior Vice-President, Pirhossein Koulivand, head of the National Emergency Service, deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, and Ali-Akbar Velayati, close adviser to the Supreme Leader and former Foreign Minister, are all on the long list of those infected. The virus has even killed some well-known public figures such as Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a member of the Expediency Council (which adjudicates disputes between the Majles and other bodies) and Hossein Shaikholislam, who was one of the radical students who took over the US embassy in 1979 and held its staff hostage, later becoming Iran’s ambassador to Syria and an adviser to Mohammad Javad Zarif and Fariborz Rais Dana, left-wing activist and professor of economics.

Material help from China

The Iranians have already been through hard times, and they are expecting dark days ahead. If the measures that have been taken do not succeed in slowing its progress, the peak of the epidemic will at best come in mid-April, with a tally of thousands dead. In normal times, the country’s health system and professionals are at a good level. But the situation has changed with the tightening of sanctions. “If you cut a country’s budget income by 40% and prevent it exporting its oil and gas, of course, its health system will be affected,” wrote the economist Thierry Coville in La Croix on 13 March.

In the days ahead, thousands of patients are going to need life support, and hospital places are limited. Oxygen masks, respirators, thermometers, diagnostic testing kits, surgical gloves: the Health Ministry has already established a long list of medical supplies the hospitals need in order to combat the virus. In theory, medicines and medical equipment are exempted from US sanctions, but in practice the Americans are keeping up and tightening their restrictions.

Without making any concrete proposal, Donald Trump has offered humanitarian aid through the Swiss channel (Switzerland represents US interests in Iran in the absence of diplomatic relations). “All they have to do is ask,” he said. President Hassan Rouhani replied on 4 March that if the US really wanted to help Iran combat the coronavirus, it should lift sanctions on the country, including the blockade on medical supplies. He added: “Those who have been inflicting the most vicious harm on the Iranian nation for the past two years suddenly seem to have donned the mask of sympathy.”

As for France, Germany and the United Kingdom, they delivered some token medical aid to Iran on 2 and 16 March. But the bulk of the aid is coming from China, with experts on the ground and solidarity convoys from Chinese donors. President Xi Jinping declared on 14 March that China would continue to provide aid to the best of its ability to support Iran in its battle with the Covid-19 epidemic.

Popular support for the carers

Iranian health professionals are in the front line against the virus. They are working in very difficult conditions and without the necessary means. Several have already lost their lives caring for patients. The public has paid tribute to them in millions of social media postings thanking them.

To cheer people up, video clips have been circulating on social media pretending to have been shot in hospitals, showing medical personnel in full operating-theatre gear with surgical masks, dancing to traditional or Iranian pop music. Some of them have sported the hashtags #Chalesh-e raqs (Dance of Defiance) and #Corona_ra-chekast_midahim (We will defeat Corona).

Problems of isolation

Every year, with the arrival of spring on 20 March, tens of millions of Iranians take to the road for the two weeks of the Norouz holiday, marking the Iranian new year. That could accelerate the spread of the coronavirus, especially since in recent days part of the population has not been heeding the advice to stay home. The rush of the well heeled towards the luxurious villas in the coastal towns of the Caspian Sea has continued despite warnings.

In Tehran too, the advice has not always been respected. Deploring the phenomenon, the official in charge of handling the crisis in the capital, Alireza Zali, said on 14 March: “Our observations on the ground show that today has been one of the most crowded days in Tehran despite all the warnings we’ve given people about the spread of coronavirus.”

Drastic measures were announced after the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the armed forces on 12 March to join in the battle again Covid-19, especially to impose stricter control on movements within and between the cities. A committee was set up to oversee the operation, which involves “emptying the shops, streets and roads” in line with a national decision, according to a televised statement by the Chief of Staff, Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri. “In the next ten days, the entire Iranian nation will be monitored, either electronically, by phone or if necessary in person,” he said, adding that “people suspected of being infected will be identified.” The visible presence of the Revolutionary Guards and the army, especially in cleaning up the cities, also has the apparent aim of reburnishing the image of those forces following the clashes with the public in November over the rise in petrol prices.

Moreover, tricky subjects like the need for transparency in official media news, and the difficult working conditions faced by street children, have surfaced again. Some NGOs and charitable associations issued an appeal for straight, transparent news, a lockdown in the most affected cities, a ban on children working in the streets, open information on foreign aid and donations received, respect for scientific recommendations relating to prevention, and the use of all means provided by the World Health Organisation.

Under a decision issued by the Judiciary on 13 March, about 90,000 prisoners serving sentences of less than five years for offences other than “acting against national security” were temporarily released in order to limit the spread of the virus. They included Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian serving a 5-year sentence on spying charges which she denies. Although some political prisoners were also able to benefit from the move, 100 former political prisoners wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei demanding freedom for prisoners of conscience. The families of prisoners demanded better health facilities for those detained.

Measures to support the vulnerable

Isolations, illness and the halt of normal activity weigh heavily on the life of the people, already stressed before the health crisis. Thousands of businesses, workshops and enterprises have ground to a halt. People have run out of resources and have difficulty getting by. The government’s support programme consists of offering construction workers, seasonal and day labourers, street vendors, taxi drivers and restaurant staff loans of one to two million tomans (£60-£120) with an interest rate of 4%. About three million families will take advantage of that. Families without even an irregular income will be given coupons worth 200,000 tomans (£14) a month for an individual to 600,000 tomans (£42) for a family of five or more. On 16 March, the Boniad Mostazafan (the Foundation of the Deprived) also announced that it was granting a million tomans each (£60) to 4,000 South Tehran street vendors.

But that is just a drop in the ocean. The measures taken to try to help the vulnerable public seem nowhere near meeting the magnitude of the catastrophe, with the Iranian economy already weakened by Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy—and also by internal corruption. But the super-rich and the big enterprises will breathe a little easier, with promises of tax cuts this year.

The virus may affect everybody without social distinction, but its consequences are much harsher for the less privileged. Following the anti-virus hygiene advice is obviously a lot harder for people struggling to make ends meet, and who are continuing to engage in unauthorised street peddling despite the call for isolation; and indeed for example for the thousands of delivery boys who continue to take supplies to people who pay not to have to leave their homes. Profiteering speculators are arrested every day. The chief of the economic security police announced that more than 16m hygiene items—latex gloves, sanitiser, surgical masks—had been seized around the country on one single day, 14 March.

Waiting for the IMF’s answer

Iran’s health system is particularly under threat. Under “maximum pressure,” the tightening of US sanctions, coupled with internal corruption and speculation, thousands of people are already in economic distress, out of work and with no income. Unemployment and inflation rates will rise dramatically with Covid-19. The people are being crushed by economic pressures as much as by the rising curve of the virus. In such a situation, this blockade, especially of health supplies, takes on a criminal dimension.

What are the chances of a positive response from the IMF to the Iranian request? Could it come to Iran’s rescue without Washington’s approval? How would the big international institutions and other countries react, preoccupied as they are with the pandemic? Who would dare defy the Americans in the midst of this unprecedented health crisis? As Iran awaits an answer, the health crisis there seems to be raging out of control.