In Iran, slow vaccinations fuel anger in unending pandemic

In Iran, slow vaccinations fuel anger in unending pandemic
Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi (2n L) during a visit to Imam Khomeini Hospital and Corona Vaccination Center in the capital Tehran. Iran reported over 500 daily COVID-19 deaths for the first time, as new infections also hit a record high. (File/AFP)
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Updated 11 August 2021

In Iran, slow vaccinations fuel anger in unending pandemic

In Iran, slow vaccinations fuel anger in unending pandemic
  • Only 3 million of Iran's more than 80 million people having received both vaccine doses
  • Since the start of the pandemic, Iran has recorded nearly 4 million COVID-19 cases and more than 91,000 deaths

DUBAI: Iranians are suffering through yet another surge in the coronavirus pandemic — their country’s worst yet — and anger is growing at images of vaccinated Westerners without face masks on the Internet or on TV while they remain unable to get the shots.

Iran, like much of the world, remains far behind countries like the United States in vaccinating its public, with only 3 million of its more than 80 million people having received both vaccine doses. But while some countries face poverty or other challenges in obtaining vaccines, Iran has brought some of the problems on itself.

After Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refused to accept vaccine donations from Western countries, the Islamic Republic has sought to make the shots domestically, though that process lags far behind other nations.

The supply of non-Western shots remains low, creating a black market offering Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech shots for as much as $1,350 in a country where the currency, the Iranian rial, is on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile,

US sanctions imposed on Iran mean the cash-strapped government has limited funds to purchase vaccines abroad.

And even as the delta variant wreaks havoc, filling the country’s already overwhelmed hospitals, many Iranians have given up on wearing masks and staying at home.

The need to earn a living trumps the luxury of social distancing.

“What is next? A sixth wave? A seventh wave? When is it going to end?” asked Reza Ghasemi, a 27-year-old delivery man without a face mask, smoking a cigarette next to his motorbike on a recent day in Tehran. “It is not clear when this situation will change to a better one.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Iran has recorded nearly 4 million COVID-19 cases and more than 91,000 deaths — the highest numbers across the Middle East.

The true count is believed to be much higher. In April 2020, Iran’s parliament warned its case number was “eight to 10 times” higher than the reported figures, due to undercounting. While coronavirus testing capacity has surged since then, officials repeatedly have suggested the case count remains far off. The death toll is likely three times higher, officials say, as Iran only counts those who die in a hospital while being treated for coronavirus.

Khamenei in January slammed shut any possibility of American or British vaccines entering the country, calling them “forbidden.”

”I really do not trust,” them, Khamenei said of those nations. “Sometimes they want to test” their vaccines on other countries.

The decision, after Khamenei earlier floated conspiracy theories about the virus’ origin in March 2020, saw Iran turn inward and try to develop its own vaccines. Those efforts, relying on traditional “dead virus” vaccines rather than the Pfizer and Moderna method of targeting the coronavirus’ spike protein using RNA, have yet to reach mass production. And while the government claims local shots are 85 percent effective, they’ve released no data from their trials.

For now, the majority of Iranians receiving vaccines rely on foreign-made shots. Japan has donated 2.9 million doses of its locally produced AstraZeneca shots. China has sent 10 million doses of its shots. Iran also made a deal with Russia to buy 60 million doses of Sputnik V, but so far, Moscow has delivered just over 1 million shots.

Doctors received the first set of vaccines, while the government now offers shots to those 50 and older, as well as to taxi drivers, journalists and those with diabetes. But it hasn’t been nearly enough to keep up with demand. Only 4 percent of the Iranian public are fully vaccinated, according to government statistics.

Those with residency permits have sought shots in the United Arab Emirates. Others have gone to Armenia where authorities offer free shots to visiting foreigners. In Tehran, word-of-mouth claims that Pfizer and Moderna shots smuggled in over the border from Irbil, Iraq, including the ultra-cold freezers needed for them, are now for sale in the Iranian capital.

A two-dose Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccine goes for $390, while two Pfizer shots cost $1,350. Those paying go on faith that the products have not expired — or are even legitimate vaccines.

Mahsa, a 31-year-old woman in Tehran, said she got the Moderna vaccine through her boyfriend’s friend, a doctor working at a pharmacy.
“I am sure the vaccine is genuine because I trust the doctor,” she said.

Amirali, a 39-year-old father of a baby girl, said he bought shots of the Japanese-made AstraZeneca vaccine from an Iranian doctor secretly vaccinating people for profit. Amirali said he took the chance as his wife, a permanent US resident, received the Pfizer vaccine while visiting America.

“I was not sure when the government will provide vaccines for my age group, so I decided to vaccinate myself,” he said.

Both Amirali and Mahsa spoke on condition that only their first names be used for fear of retribution from the authorities.

But for those who can’t pay, there are no shots yet.

Iran’s civilian government, now undergoing a transition of power to hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, has been overwhelmed by the crisis. And with the Islamic Republic also facing protests over economic issues, water shortages and blackouts, the government likely wants to avoid triggering wider unrest.

“They want us to accept any situation simply because they failed to do their duty with vaccinations,” said Abbas Zarei, who sells mobile phone accessories in northern Tehran. “From time to time, they announce that businesses should close because of corona restrictions though it damages our lives.”

“It is not fair,” said Zarei, who like many in Iran, struggles to make a living. “I do not care about the restrictions anymore.”


Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire prevented all-out war but remains fragile, UN Security Council hears

Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire prevented all-out war but remains fragile, UN Security Council hears
Updated 09 August 2022

Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire prevented all-out war but remains fragile, UN Security Council hears

Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire prevented all-out war but remains fragile, UN Security Council hears
  • Egyptian envoy called on Israeli authorities to lift their blockade of Gaza, halt illegal settlement activity, and respect the status of Al-Aqsa Mosque
  • Israeli ambassador accused Palestinian Islamic Jihad of taking its orders from Iranian “puppet masters” whose “hatred know no boundaries”

NEW YORK: Although a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants, brokered by Egypt late on Sunday, put an end to intense fighting and appears to be holding, it is fragile and the underlying causes of the latest eruption of violence remain, the UN said on Monday.

It added that the cycle of violence will only stop with a political resolution to the decades-old conflict that ends the Israeli occupation and includes a two-State solution, based on the June 1967 borders and in line with UN resolutions and international law.

Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told an emergency meeting of the Security Council that 46 Palestinians were killed and 360 injured during the recent escalation, during which Israel launched 147 strikes on Gaza and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired 1,100 rockets and mortars into Israel. Hundreds of homes and other civilian infrastructure were destroyed. The figures are provisional and “verification is ongoing,” he added.

“While fully recognizing Israel’s legitimate security concerns I reiterate that under international law, all use of force must be proportionate and take all feasible steps to avoid civilian casualties,” Wennesland said. “Children, in particular, must never be the target of violence or put in harm’s way.”

The UAE, together with China, France, Ireland and Norway, requested the emergency meeting to discuss the recent developments in the Gaza Strip.

Wennesland said that the escalation had exacerbated already chronic shortages of essential medicines in Gaza, and that the closure by Israel of the Erez crossing into the Strip for six days had severe humanitarian consequences for Gazans, including preventing patients traveling for medical treatment in Israel.

“The closures also worsened the already precarious food-security situation in the Gaza Strip,

reducing stocks of basic foods, particularly wheat flour,” he said.

Wennesland thanked Egypt for the role it played in securing the ceasefire, alongside the UN, and also thanked Qatar, Jordan, the US and the Palestinian Authority for their deescalation efforts.

“Together, these efforts helped prevent the outbreak of a full-scale war and allowed for the delivery of much-needed humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza starting earlier today,” he told the council members.

He welcomed the “timely reopening” of the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings by Israel following the ceasefire, and he called on the leaderships of Israel and Palestine, along with the international community, to step up diplomatic efforts to resume negotiations aimed at securing a viable, two-state solution.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian permanent observer to the UN, accused Israel of “murdering and oppressing an entire nation.” He added that Israel’s “right to security has become a license to kill and needs to be revoked,” as he urged the Security Council to “act now.”

“If you are against violence, do not exclude Israeli violence,” he added. “Do not justify it. Are you ready to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ as the highest authority responsible for the maintenance of peace and security?

“Israeli kills our people because it can. When will the world show them that it cannot?”

Mansour told council members that “defenseless Palestinian families need your support; not a nuclear power, not an occupying power,” as he asked council members “to drag the two parties to the peace process, today before tomorrow.”

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, accused PIJ members of taking their orders from Iranian puppet masters, adding: “Their hate knows no boundaries.”

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He drew a parallel between the PIJ and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the organization to which recently killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri once belonged.

“EIJ and PIJ share more than a similar name,” Erdan said. “They share the same value of annihilating the free and modern world that we live in.”

While the world welcomed the killing of Al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike on July 31, Erdan said that “UN officials suddenly express deep concern when Israel does the same. It’s hard to understand such double standards.”

He added: “The only remedy for Gazans is for their leaders to stop trying to annihilate Israel and stop investing in terror infrastructure.”

Erdan urged the Security Council to unite behind the condemnation of the PIJ: “Holding a debate and not using the opportunity to fully condemn their war crimes will motivate them to keep (committing more such crimes).”

He also thanked Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi for his efforts in helping to broker the ceasefire and “restoring stability in our region.”

Osama Abdel Khalek Mahmoud, Egypt’s permanent representative to the UN, called on Israeli authorities to end all of their illegal practices and halt the settlement expansion in the West Bank, which he described as “the most flagrant violation of Palestinian basic human rights,” and to lift the blockade of Gaza and allow food and fuel to begin flowing back into the Strip.

He also called on Israel to respect the legal and historical status of the holy sites in Eastern Jerusalem, urged all parties to refrain from targeting civilians, and asked the international community to help revive the peace process.

Mohammed Abushahab, the UAE’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, expressed deep concern about the recent violence in Gaza and stressed the need for all parties to abide by their responsibilities under international law and international humanitarian law. He also condemned the Israeli incursion into Al-Aqsa Mosque as a provocative action.

“The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza cannot bear more shocks,” Abushahab said as he welcomed the truce and offered his country’s “sincere appreciation” to El-Sisi for his role in helping to restore calm.

Abushahab reiterated his country’s support for all regional and international efforts aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East, and renewed its support for a two-state solution.


Protests in Iraq over power cuts

Protests in Iraq over power cuts
Updated 09 August 2022

Protests in Iraq over power cuts

Protests in Iraq over power cuts

JEDDAH: Demonstrators in the southern Iraqi province of Basra blocked roads on Monday in protests over power cuts that left many without electricity in 50C heat.

People took to the streets and burned tires, blocking the main road to the provincial capital. Meanwhile followers of powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr continued a sit-in outside the Iraqi parliament building to demand early elections. Demonstrators in Basra said they supported Sadr’s protest and were tired of government corruption.

“It’s not the first time we protest and it won’t be the last,” said Ali Hussein, 35. “We support him, and we ask that he punish the corrupt.”

The protests began after the collapse of the electricity grid in six southern provinces due to excessive demand amid high temperatures. Basra Gov. Asaad Al-Eidani said the latest cuts were due to a fire at a power station.

In the holy city of Najaf, a weapons depot belonging to the Iran-backed Hashd Al-Shaabi network of paramilitary groups exploded in the heat.


Battered Gaza counts the cost as three-day Israeli assault kills 44

Battered Gaza counts the cost as three-day Israeli assault kills 44
Updated 09 August 2022

Battered Gaza counts the cost as three-day Israeli assault kills 44

Battered Gaza counts the cost as three-day Israeli assault kills 44
  • Three-day Israeli assault kills 44, including 15 children * Power plant restarts as fragile truce takes hold

GAZA CITY: Gazans on Monday buried their dead, combed through the rubble of their homes and counted the cost of another violent Israeli onslaught.

At least 44 Palestinians, including four women and 15 children, were killed in the three-day bombardment, and more than 350 were injured. Eighteen homes were completely destroyed, 1,675 were damaged  and 71 were made uninhabitable.

The attack began on Friday when Israel launched an aerial and artillery bombardment of Islamic Jihad positions, the biggest assault since Israel’s 11-day war on Gaza last year.

The violence finally ended late on Sunday with a ceasefire brokered by Egypt. “We received the news of the ceasefire with joy and happiness and we went back to our work,” said Gaza shopkeeper Hazem Douima. “We did not want more bloodshed.”
Bereaved families buried the victims. At one funeral joined by hundreds of mourners in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, a single family laid four children to rest.

Sobhi El-Wawy, 44, told Arab News: “We thank God that we are still alive. They were hard days. There was bombing everywhere, it was frightening for adults and children. This is not the first time this has happened, and I don’t think it will be the last.

“We want to live as the rest of the world’s population lives ... we do not want wars and we do not want escalation, we want peace.”

Rahma Al-Borai said: “We are almost back to normal life, but the lives of those who lost their children or loved ones will be much more difficult.

“We live in Gaza under a harsh life, there is a lot of poverty, and there is a lot of pain, and unfortunately no one looks at us with this view ... the world is unjust.

“Look how the world dealt with Ukraine, and how they deal with the Palestinians. We are under bombardment ... we are dying for no reason. What we want is only freedom.”

As the fragile truce took hold on Monday, Israel reopened the Kerem Shalom crossing to supply fuel for Gaza’s only power plant, generating eight hours of electricity a day. It also reopened the Erez crossing for hospitalpatients, some diplomats and foreigners.

Palestinians cannot yet cross the border to work, which Israel said was dependent on a period of calm, and a security assessment.


Former Israeli health minister sentenced over student abuse case

Former Israeli health minister sentenced over student abuse case
Updated 08 August 2022

Former Israeli health minister sentenced over student abuse case

Former Israeli health minister sentenced over student abuse case

JERUSALEM: An Israeli court sentenced a former health minister to probation and a fine on Monday for obstructing justice in connection with the protracted extradition case against a former teacher accused of sexually abusing her students in Australia.

Yaakov Litzman, a former health minister and longtime ally of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, resigned from parliament earlier this year after striking a plea deal with prosecutors.

He was accused of pressuring ministry employees to alter psychiatric evaluations to make it appear that Malka Leifer was unfit to stand trial.

Leifer was extradited to Australia in January 2021 after a six-year legal battle that strained relations between the two countries and angered Australia’s Jewish community.

Leifer has pleaded not guilty to the charges and her trial is expected to start later this month.

Litzman was health minister during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic but resigned in April 2020 in the face of a public uproar over his handling of the crisis.  He was charged with fraud and breach of trust earlier this year, but pleaded guilty to the breach of trust charge in the Leifer case.

In Monday’s hearing, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court upheld the plea deal and sentenced Litzman to eight months of probation and a $900 fine.

He and Leifer are members of the country’s insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Last year, then-Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Litzman had used his position “to advance the interests of private individuals.”

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges that Litzman used his influence to prevent a friend’s deli from being shut down over health concerns.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel said the court’s acceptance of the “lenient and shameful” plea deal erodes public trust and law enforcement’s ability to perform its duty.


Six migrants die after boat sinks off Algeria

Six migrants die after boat sinks off Algeria
Updated 08 August 2022

Six migrants die after boat sinks off Algeria

Six migrants die after boat sinks off Algeria
  • A search was ongoing for an unspecified number of missing people

ALGIERS: Six migrants were found dead at sea and others were missing after their boat sank on Monday off the coast of Algeria, local television reported, adding six survivors were rescued.

“Six bodies were retrieved and six injured people, including a pregnant woman, have been transferred to hospital at Bainem” west of the capital Algiers, private television channel Ennahar said.

The boat capsized around 4 a.m. local time, it added.

A search was ongoing for an unspecified number of missing people.

The boat’s occupants originated from various sub-Saharan African countries.  They were attempting to reach Europe.

More than 2,350 would-be migrants have been rescued or intercepted in the first seven months of this year off Algeria, according to data provided by national authorities.

Spain is a favored destination for migrants embarking from the North African nation. Tunisian coast guards “rescued” more than 250 migrants who were attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, the North African country’s National Guard said on Sunday.

Maritime authorities “were able ... to rescue 255 would-be migrants, including 170 people of various African nationalities, with the remainder Tunisians,” the National Guard said in a statement on Facebook. The attempted crossings — 17 in total — took place on the night of Friday to Saturday from the east of Tunisia, according to National Guard spokesman Houcem Eddine Jebabli.

The statement did not indicate whether any vessels had got into difficulty or sunk, but did note that an unspecified sum of cash was seized during the operations.

In a separate statement later on Sunday, the Tunisian navy announced that 22 other would-be migrants, including nine children and three women, had been rescued on Saturday.

They were all Tunisian, the statement said, adding that they were rescued on a boat 80 km off the island of Kuriat near the eastern coastal city of Monastir.

The National Guard on Friday had carried out a “pre-emptive operation,” arresting five people who were “preparing to lead an illegal immigration bid departing from the coast of Sousse province in the east of the country,” spokesman Jebabli said.

The Tunisian coast guard announced in mid-July that 455 migrants had been “rescued” in several operations off the northern, eastern and southern coasts of the country. Attempts by migrants to reach Europe from the North African coastline tend to increase in spring and summer, due to the lower risk of stormy seas.

Tunisia and Libya are principal departure points and Italy a favored destination.