Iran, by far the Middle East country hardest hit by Covid-19, has been fighting a fifth wave of infections for weeks – the strongest so far. Daily deaths and cases are rising amid criticism on social media of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
According to the latest official figures, over 12,000 people, including children, have died from Covid-19 in the past two weeks, overwhelming Iran’s run-down public health service. It brings the total death toll to more than 110,000, despite the state Shargh Daily said that “Experts believed the real number is 2.5 times higher.”
About 7,689 people are in severe condition and being treated in intensive care units, while more than 600 people die every day, including members of the Iranian ruling circle. Last week, local media reported that Hassan Firouzabadi, head of the Iranian armed forces until 2016 and then military advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, died of coronavirus at the age of 70.
The hospitals are so crowded that patients line the floors and the most desperate wait in the streets. Essential medicines are in short supply.
U.S. sanctions on Iran on its oil exports, which suffered a catastrophic loss of $ 100 billion in sales, and its access to the U.S.-dominated international banking system have devastated the country’s health system and denied it access to pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.
At the same time, Iran’s pro-business spiritual regime has played a crucial role in attempting to put the full burden of the economic crisis caused by the sanctions and pandemic on the working class and poor peasants in order to protect the country’s corrupt financial elite from the coronavirus Population can penetrate.
As chairman of his first cabinet meeting, President Ebrahim Raisi, a member of the “hardliner” or “principalist” faction around Khamenei, had to admit the extent of the crisis facing workers and their families. He said that Iran was “seriously behind” in many areas and pledged to improve its economy and Covid response, saying the current situation was “not appropriate to the Islamic Republic”.
However, he has not announced any measures to reduce the transmission of the disease other than getting people to wear masks and keeping social distance. Raisi lifted a six-day shutdown and travel ban last month, although cases rose.
The pandemic is virtually invisible in the country’s heavily censored media, and the President is calling for any public discussion of the pandemic to focus on “creating maximum hope and not creating fear and anxiety in people”. Last month, the Iranian authorities arrested six prominent human rights lawyers and activists who were reportedly preparing a complaint against the government’s mismanagement in the COVID-19 crisis. While one of them was released the next day, the others were detained.
A health official has admitted that the government has spent more than $ 800 million on a drug that inadequately treats the symptoms of the disease. That money could have been used to buy more than 160 million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine, more than enough to vaccinate every Iranian adult. Instead, in January, Khamenei banned the purchase of American and British vaccines, claiming the West would use them to experiment on Iranians.
As a result, the Iranian vaccination program has been slow to get going. Although Khamenei and government officials insisted that Iran develop its own “safe and effective” vaccines and that most of the population would be vaccinated by mid-summer, problems in its development made the country dependent on imports of vaccines from Russia and China which have only recently become available. According to the Ministry of Health, only 9.5 million of the 85 million Iranians received their second dose of vaccination and just under 19.5 million Iranians received their first vaccination.
Last week, 10 prominent Iranian activists, including Narges Mohammadi and Mohammad Nourizad, who both served as political prisoners, and renowned filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof wrote to Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and other international rights organizations. They called for urgent action to combat the Covid crisis in Iran, including a commitment by the Iranian government to import vaccines.
They said, “We will face appalling mass deaths in Iran if enough vaccines are not imported to vaccinate everyone in the country,” giving Khamenei’s vaccine ban, the lack of other vaccines and the promotion of large religious gatherings of the government that act as super- Spreizer and emphasizes that the official figures cannot be trusted.
The Iranian currency has fallen to almost a tenth of its value since 2017, forcing the government to print money to offset the loss of overseas income. Inflation is approaching 50 percent, which is lowering workers’ wages. Government officials have admitted that up to 60 percent of Iranians have fallen below the poverty line, far more than the 30 percent reported in official statistics, and cannot afford a lot of food. New data shows that the prices of seven foods, including cooking oil, beverages, mushrooms, tomatoes, butter, and carrots, rose more than 100 percent in July year-over-year, along with an increase in drug costs.
House prices have also risen after people bought property to protect their savings, leading to higher rents amid a massive shortage of affordable housing as workers moved from drought-hit rural areas to cities.
On state television, President Raisi stressed that he would keep his election promise to build one million affordable apartments for sale annually during his tenure. But the scale of the task was revealed in the Iranian business media, which reported that it would cost $ 15 billion a year, more than last year’s oil export revenues. The reports indicated that at $ 200 per square meter, even a 50-square-meter apartment would cost $ 10,000, which most workers cannot match. Others asked how the new houses could be supplied with electricity and water given the existing electricity and water shortages.
Strikes and protests that subsided with the onset of the pandemic have now resurfaced, including the ongoing strike by contract workers in the state petrochemical industry and protests against electricity and water shortages.
Hundreds of teachers demonstrated in front of the parliament and the budget and planning building in Tehran on Sunday to protest the cancellation of a pay increase agreed by the former Rouhani government. They sang: “With a Masters and PhD we get a small salary.” Her wage of around $ 120 a month is well below the minimum wage of $ 400 needed to avoid poverty. Masoud Mirkazemi, the new head of the budget and planning organization, dismissed the raise as unaffordable and criticized the previous government for making such a promise to teachers.
The regime came under further criticism when leaked video clips from security cameras in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where many political prisoners are held, revealed the extent of the physical abuse of detainees. According to the website of Iran InternationalA clip shows police officers attacking a handcuffed prisoner while others watch. Another shows several people trying to prevent a fellow prisoner from committing suicide, and a third shows prisoners carrying another prisoner to the clinic, presumably without the help of guards.
While all political groups want to see the lifting of US sanctions and the revival of the nuclear deal with the great powers as a way out of the regime’s economic, social and political crisis, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the US will agree to lift all sanctions in 2018 were re-imposed by the Trump administration, as well as others that were later imposed. While Raisi has expressed support for the Vienna sanctions lifting talks, Raisi said he would not agree to negotiate under pressure, an indication of demands by the United States and its European allies not to delay talks further .
Tehran hopes to use the collapse of Washington’s puppet regime in Afghanistan – even if relations with the Taliban are far from good – to improve its negotiating position and is in no hurry to resume talks that were suspended in June until Raisi’s inauguration .
Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said it was important for Iran to maintain symmetrical relations with Russia and China, in line with Tehran’s “looking east” policy.