These are unprecedented times, times that call for unprecedented measures, humane measures. Not from Donald Trump's America, though—when it comes to Iran. Last week, while slapping new sanctions on an already weak Iran, crumbling apart under crippling US sanctions, Donald Trump blatantly made clear that the sanctions on Iran will not be lifted.
Iran, the Middle East's worst-hit nation by COVID-19, is currently seeing 1 death every 10 minutes, and 50 new cases of infection every hour. And why not?
The Iranians have been hit hard by the sanctions the US has imposed on them since the US unilaterally pulled out of the multilateral Iran Nuclear Deal that was inked in 2015, with Donald Trump hoping to force Iran to sign a new deal with the US. Critical industries like oil, metals, manufacturing, along with other industries, have had to bear the brunt of multiple sanctions and this has badly affected the bottom of the pyramid.
Due to limited international trade, people had been laid off in various industries, inflations have gone up, and earning sustenance has become difficult for a lot of Iranians. Naturally, this has resulted in lower standard of living, malnutrition, undernutrition, and suppressed immune system. COVID-19 was another blow, and it has been exacting a disproportionate toll.
Add to that the inability of the Iranians to procure medical supplies, including equipment required to fight off the disease. The situation in the northern province of Gilan is particularly dire, where, as reported by Asia News IT, five doctors and three nurses recently died from Covid-19. And a lot of it has to do with the battering US sanctions.
"There is an extreme shortage of these supplies in-country [sic], where stock is often low due to the steep price of medicines and medical equipment—a consequence of US sanctions," Relief International observed last month. According to the Human Rights Watch, the US sanctions on Iran "have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment."
While Iran faces a shortage of sanitisers and preventative gear for medical professionals in the country, as reported by ABC, the common people are taking desperate measures to protect themselves from the virus. Some of these attempts are backfiring. Case in point: 44 people died from alcohol poisoning in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahwaz, after they were told that alcohol can help prevent the disease.
Crippled, battered and desperate, Iran has sought an emergency loan of USD 5 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), for the first time in six decades. In view of the evolving situation, China, Russia and Pakistan have requested the US to lift its sanctions.
And the civil society, including Jewish advocacy group J Street, signed a letter to the US administration requesting temporary lifting of the sanctions. "To help stem the continued spread of the virus inside Iran and beyond, we urge you to issue a time-bound suspension of those US sanctions that make it harder for ordinary Iranians to secure basic goods and services to weather the crisis," the letter read.
Despite these appeals, the US has remained unmoved. When asked about whether the US would consider lifting sanctions on Iran, President Trump replied, "They know the answer, the leaders of Iran, they know the answer to your question."
And of course, the world knows America's answer.
At least 2,077 deaths and 27,017 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Iran as of March 25 evening, as per data shared by the website Worldometers.
Despite US' top diplomat Mike Pompeo telling everyone that "humanitarian assistance to Iran is wide open, it's not sanctioned," a Middle East Eye report states that, "While the US administration has said there are no sanctions on medicine going to Iran, or on humanitarian assistance, many banks and companies have refrained from taking part in any such ventures out of fear of getting caught up in US secondary sanctions."
And if anything, Wednesday's new sanctions targeting petrochemicals trade with Iran—blacklisting of five companies based in the United Arab Emirates, three in mainland China, three in Hong Kong and one in South Africa—would add to the fears and apprehensions of other companies, further discouraging trade with Iran, even as part of humanitarian assistance.
While Iran was perhaps wrong in rejecting US offer of help in tackling COVID-19, one can understand where this anger and distrust are coming from.
So, Iran continues to suffer. Little does America, or the world for that matter, care about Iran's tribulations. But if COVID-19 continues to fester in the alleys, nooks and corners of Iran, this would put the region in greater danger of contamination.
COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease, one that has emerged from China's Wuhan city to spread to 193 countries and territories around the world, and if this disease is allowed to get the better of humans even in one country, it would pose greater risks for the world.
The world must take it to heart that COVID-19 is a global problem—a pandemic—and in the globalised world we live in, in order to be able to combat this pestilence, world leaders need to put their political agendas aside, and both enemies and allies need to fight it together. If Iran is abandoned by the US and its allies, and left to fend for itself, not only will the country suffer unspeakable horrors, its reverberations will be felt across the globe too.
The crippling sanctions on Iran need to be lifted immediately, even if as a temporary humane measure.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem