LONDON: Iranian mismanagement has harmed the country’s response to the coronavirus disease pandemic, Human Rights Watch has claimed.
HRW outlined how Tehran’s prohibition on procuring vaccines produced in the US and UK severely hampered the response, adding that an opaque system of management and a lack of transparency worsened an already dire situation.
The criticism comes as Iran experiences yet another wave of the virus — reportedly its fifth — with at least 655 daily COVID-19 deaths, adding to the total of almost 100,000 deaths as of Aug. 18, based on official government statistics. The reality is likely much worse.
Iraj Harirchihad, a deputy health minister, previously outlined how COVID-19 deaths are only recorded when there is a positive PCR test involved, adding that the true death count could be up to 2.2 times as high as the state claims.
Social media reports have indicated that Iran’s health system is crumbling under the added pressure of another wave of cases, with hospitals experiencing bed shortages in many cities.
Elsewhere, Alireza Zali, the head of Tehran’s COVID-19 response task force, acknowledged on Aug. 4 social media reports that revealed shortages of oxygen and medical serum required to administer remdesivir, a medicine used for patients with COVID-19 in critical condition.
The pressure on Iranian authorities was exacerbated when the head of public relations at the association of pharmacists in Khorasan-e Razavi province also said that serum and remdesivir were being rationed, putting lives at risk.
HRW has called on Tehran to reassess its counter-COVID-19 strategy by focussing all available efforts on the procurement of lifesaving vaccines while also honestly and clearly communicating with the public about the COVID-19 situation.
“Iranians are expressing their anger at the authorities’ incompetence and lack of transparency in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, which is costing an Iranian life every few minutes,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, adding: “Public trust is a crucial factor in managing the public health crisis, yet Iranian authorities’ track record of repeated failure is happening again.”
Iranian citizens who have petitioned the regime over its virus mismanagement have faced severe and sudden repression, with authorities arresting six prominent human rights lawyers and activists on Aug. 14. They were reportedly in the process of producing a complaint against the regime’s mismanagement of the crisis; Just one has been released.
As the death toll and hospitalizations rise, Iranian authorities announced a six-day lockdown from Aug. 15, confining more people to their homes.
While the activists remain under arrest, officials have claimed that sanctions are to blame for the state’s failure to procure sufficient vaccines. HRW said that they have failed to verify these claims.
The group did, however, outline how senior Iranian officials have “severely interfered” with the acquisition of vaccines and spread damaging misinformation among the public.
On Jan. 8, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech that the “import of vaccines made in the US and UK are prohibited.” In a tweet that was hidden by Twitter due to its violation of the company’s COVID-19 misleading information policy, Khamenei said that Western-produced vaccines are “completely untrustworthy. It’s not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.”
The failure to accept Western-produced vaccines has had dire consequences. Despite the urgent need for the supply of jabs, imports have been canceled. On Jan. 9, Dr. Mohammad Hassan Ghousian Moghadam, head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, revealed that plans to import 150,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine donated by a US charity had been quashed.
HRW’s warnings about vaccine supply come as the latest statistics reveal that just over 5 million people have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine required for full protection.
Despite having a population over 85 million that urgently needs to be inoculated, Iranian authorities have continued to prioritize their own domestic vaccine — COVIran Barekat — despite a lack of details on the vaccine’s safety and ability to offer protection. Even if it does provide adequate protection, experts have noted that domestic supply is insufficient to cover the population.
HRW said that “Iranian authorities should make use of every available resource to respond to the outbreak in a way that respects human rights and minimizes harm to the health and well-being of all those living in the country,” adding: “This includes providing access to timely and accurate information about the pandemic, make personal protective equipment adequately available for frontline workers, providing access to affordable and safe testing, and providing social welfare support so that people can safely quarantine when necessary.”
The group added: “The Iranian government should publish all procurement contracts as well as an up-to-date vaccine supply and delivery index with price details, date of delivery, and number of doses.”
While Iranian officials continue to blame sanctions on their vaccine procurement crisis, the reality tells a different tale. On June 17, the US Department of the Treasury issued an additional general license for transactions and activities involving the delivery of face masks, ventilators, and oxygen tanks, vaccines and the production of vaccines, COVID-19 tests, air filtration systems, and COVID-19-related field hospitals. This move ensured that while Washington maintained broad sanctions on Iran, it did not penalize the country for seeking access to COVID-19 support.
“Iranian authorities cannot blame sanctions to excuse their mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Sepehri Far said. “Iranians need and deserve better from their government.”