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20 Oct 2020 4:34
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  •   Home > News > International

    Iran is in the grip of a 'third wave' of COVID-19. With poverty and hunger rising, people are outraged

    Iran was hit hard and hit early by the coronavirus pandemic. Now, after surviving two spikes in infections, the country is in the throes of yet another surge of cases, plunging an exhausted nation into despair.

    Iran's regime is describing it as the dreaded "third wave" of the coronavirus pandemic: a record number of deaths in a single day, and a surge in new infections.

    The country was one of the first places outside China to be struck by the disease, and experienced a huge outbreak from March.

    After getting the number of infections under control by May, Iran experienced another surge in cases in June.

    But the virus is once again spiralling out of control.

    On October 13, 272 Iranians died from COVID-19, the most in a single day since the pandemic spread to Iran at the beginning of the year.

    But the Government acknowledged the real figure could be double that.

    The official death toll doesn't include potential false negatives or the many patients who had coronavirus symptoms but were not tested.

    "The actual COVID-related death figures can be calculated 1.5 or 1.7 times, even 2 or 2.2 times higher than the announced figures, depending on the specific conditions in each province," Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said.

    Iran's virus outbreak is shrouded in mystery

    Nearly 30,000 Iranians out of a population of 84 million have died in the pandemic, the worst toll in the Middle East.

    Senior regime officials, including several vice-presidents, the deputy health minister himself and the head of the atomic energy agency, have contracted the disease.

    All up, Iran has had more than half a million confirmed cases, a figure which does not account for the many deaths and infections the Government has been accused of hiding.

    In August, the regime shut down a business newspaper after it published stunning allegations from an epidemiologist who had worked for the Government's anti-coronavirus campaign.

    Mohammad Reza Mahboobfar claimed that "engineered statistics" were masking an infection rate that could be "20 times higher" than the official figures.

    The suspicion swirling around official figures made the Deputy Health Minister's new admission that the death toll could be twice as high all the more surprising.

    It could indicate the Government was trying to improve public compliance with control measures.

    "It is an alarm for the country to increase their observance of physical distancing, reducing travels and the use of face masks," Health Minister Saeed Namaki said.

    "As the situation has worsened, we have set fines on those individuals who do not follow the health protocols and endanger other people's lives, thus violating the rights of other people."

    How did things get so bad in Iran?

    Iran's dire economic situation, under ever-harsher United States sanctions, means the regime's options to control the outbreak are limited.

    "They have not been fully straight with the Iranian people, but they have been put in a position where they really can't afford to shut down the economy for long periods of time," Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran initiative at the Atlantic Council, told the ABC.

    The country's currency, the Rial, has fallen to one-tenth of its value in the past five years.

    Iran signed an international nuclear control deal with the Obama administration in exchange for sanctions relief in 2015.

    But when the Trump Administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, Iran went into recession and relied even more heavily on trade with China — something that made it slow to react to the outbreak in Wuhan.

    "I call the [sanctions] policy cruel and counterproductive [because] the victims are ordinary people," Ms Slavin said.

    The Iranian Government's lack of money is affecting everything from health to education.

    Stories of extreme poverty are sparking outrage inside Iran, a country considered to have sophisticated health and education systems.

    The suicide of an 11-year-old boy has shocked Iranians and led to criticism of the government from even the country's most conservative newspapers.

    The boy's mother says he needed a smartphone and internet connection to be able to attend remote learning classes, but they couldn't afford it.

    The US shows no sign of easing sanctions

    The cost of medical care and medicines have risen to levels many Iranians say they can no longer afford

    Even as Iran's most recent spike continued to worsen, the US imposed new sanctions on 18 Iranian banks on October 10, effectively cutting them off from international markets.

    The regime has struggled to source supplies for battling the outbreak, because of the restrictions of international transactions.

    US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions "are directed at the regime and its corrupt officials" rather than the Iranian people.

    "Our maximum economic pressure campaign will continue until Iran is willing to conclude a comprehensive negotiation that addresses the regime's malign behaviour," Mr Pompeo said in a statement announcing the new measures.

    Ms Slavin said the pandemic had offered the Trump administration a chance to reach the Iranian people.

    "They know it's not going to change any Iranian policies, it's just to show how tough they are, how macho they are … and it's disgusting," she said.

    "We should be helping them with their vaccine research, not putting more sanctions on their banks … sending iPads to their kids so they could study.

    "We could win a lot of goodwill by being shown to be generous and supportive."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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