2nd March 2020
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, there is growing evidence of an increasing impact in Iran. It is feared that sanctions imposed by the US may have weakened the capacity of the country’s medical sector to cope. Jane Green reports.
Coronavirus in Iran – may be worse than officially reported
Since first announcing the presence of coronavirus COVID-19 recently, Iran has reported a total of 388 cases and 34 deaths, a far higher fatality rate than seen elsewhere. It is widely suspected that the official tally vastly underestimates the true number of cases. Iran has the highest number of coronavirus cases outside of China.
A senior medical doctor at the Masih Daneshvari hospital in Tehran, the country’s top pulmonary public hospital and the main facility overseeing coronavirus patients was keen to retain his anonymity but stated,
“We think that this virus has been in Iran for the past three to four weeks and has circulated throughout the country. Right now in Iran we are facing a coronavirus epidemic.”
Medical teams are concerned that they do not have the means to test effectively or to screen potential cases. Testing kits were not available in Iran until last week due to the sanctions imposed upon the regime by the US.
Medical workers are also concerned that their equipment is badly outdated, a situation made worse by the US sanctions, although the US administration says “humanitarian and medical needs” are exempt from sanctions. Nevertheless, many European companies fear doing business in Iran for fear of retribution from the US.
In addition, sanctions on Iranian banks make it difficult to carry out financial transactions with Europe. It can take three times longer to make a simple banking transaction with Europe under the newly imposed sanctions.
Ventilators and medicines are also in short supply as the scarcity of US dollars limits purchasing power. While the government has imposed some restrictions on holy sites and called off some Friday prayer services, President Rouhani has said there are no plans to quarantine entire cities hit by the virus.
Due to the shortage of surgical masks and hand sanitiser in shops, public health experts say Iran could become the hub of a major outbreak across the Middle East, especially given its porous borders with unstable countries at war or in turmoil.
Studies by Human Rights Watch and other groups last year found the country’s health care sector was severely affected under the latest round of US sanctions, putting cancer and other patients in danger, without access to life-saving medicine.
Iran’s reported mortality rate for coronavirus, at just under nine percent, surpasses the rate for other countries by a wide margin. Earlier this week, it was 16 percent. China’s reported mortality rate is currently at 3.5 percent. In South Korea, 13 patients have died out of 1,766 cases, for a reported mortality rate of slightly less than 1 percent.
Precise figures for Iran however, are difficult to come by. The head of the Medical Science University in Qom, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, a city in which there has been a significant number of confirmed cases, said on state television that the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures on the outbreak in the city.
Asked how many people had been placed in quarantine, Ghadir said, “The Health Ministry has told us not to announce any new statistics.”
The lack of clear reporting from Iran has prompted experts to raise concerns over whether there has been an official cover-up of the scale of the epidemic, and whether the country will be able to contain the deadly disease.
The response of the leadership of the regime has not inspired confidence, with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, playing down the outbreak, accusing Tehran’s enemies of playing up “negative propaganda” over the coronavirus threat, to undermine recent Parliamentary elections.
The lack of concern shown by the regime is underlined by the fact that nine flights by Mahan Air, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controlled airline, were made without any official permit to China, for the transportation of passengers and freight in the two weeks prior to the Iranian government’s acknowledgement of the presence of coronavirus inside Iran.
This was despite a rule having been made by the Iranian government supposedly suspending all flights between Iran and China. The passengers of these flights were not subject to quarantine or any control whatsoever upon their return to Iran.
However, given the growing international concerns and the prospect of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a coronavirus pandemic, there have been growing calls upon the US to ease its restrictions on humanitarian trade with Iran, which would allow China and other Tehran-friendly countries, including Russia, to provide medical and humanitarian aid to the Islamic Republic before the disease escalates into a greater crisis in the region.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies programme, told reporters last week that the virus “came unseen and undetected into Iran, so the extent of infection may be broader than what we may be seeing.”
If the situation in Iran continues to deteriorate the US will come under mounting international pressure to remove some of its sanctions to allow humanitarian aid. Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, said last week,
“The Trump administration will face a moral dilemma: whether to remove some of the pressure on Iran or face international condemnation for putting millions at risk.”
Luft also expressed concern that, as fears of a global pandemic grew and countries stockpiled face masks and other medical equipment, it could be hard for other nations to help Iran effectively.
In an ironic twist State media said last week that a member of the Iranian Parliament, Mamoud Sadeghi, and the country’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, who lead a task force battling the virus, had tested positive. The news came a day after Harirchi appeared at a news conference looking feverish, reaching for tissues to wipe his brow. He wore no mask as the ministry spokesman standing next to him expressed confidence about the government’s response to the crisis.
Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur called on Iranians to avoid “unnecessary trips inside the country”, while Iran’s neighbours have closed their borders. The UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Estonia in northern Europe all recorded new cases of the virus in people travelling from Iran.
Globally, more than 80,000 people in nearly 50 countries have been infected with the coronavirus. Nearly 2,800 have died, the majority in China’s Hubei province.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star (02/03/20)
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