Slow vaccination drive fuels anger among Iranians as Covid-19 cases rise again

Country faces potential lockdown amid fifth wave of coronavirus pandemic

Iranians are suffering through yet another surge in the coronavirus pandemic – the worst to hit their country yet – and anger is growing over images of vaccinated westerners without face masks on the internet or TV, while Iranians remain unable to obtain shots.

Iran, like much of the world, remains far behind countries such as the US in vaccinating its public, with only three 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, Iran has sought to make the shots domestically, although 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 in Tehran.

“It is not clear when this situation will change to a better one.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Iran has recorded more than four million Covid-19 cases and more than 95,000 deaths – the highest numbers in the Middle East.

In a video message broadcast on Wednesday on state TV, Mr Khamenei described the rising death toll as “very painful”, urging officials to introduce free virus tests and the fatigued public to follow health measures.

The true count is believed to be much higher. In April 2020, Iran’s parliament said its true case numbers were probably “eight to 10 times” higher than the reported figures, owing to undercounting.

While testing capacity has improved since then, officials have repeatedly suggested that the case count remains far off. The true death toll is probably three times higher, officials say, because Iran only counts those who die in a hospital while being treated for coronavirus.

In January, Mr Khamenei ended any possibility of US or British vaccines entering the country, saying they were forbidden.

“I really do not trust,” them, Mr Khamenei said of those nations.

“Sometimes they want to test” their vaccines on other countries, he said.

The decision, after Mr Khamenei floated conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus in March 2020, meant Iran had to turn inward and try to develop its own vaccines.

Those efforts have not yet reached mass production. And while the government claims local shots are 85 per cent effective against Covid-19, they have not released any data from their trials.

For now, the majority of Iranians receiving vaccines rely on foreign-made shots. A Health Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that Iran could import western vaccines “as long as they’re not produced in the US or Britain".

Japan has donated 2.9 million doses of its locally produced AstraZeneca shots and China has sent 10 million doses of its shots.

Iran also made a deal with Russia to buy 60 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, but so far Moscow has delivered about one million doses.

Doctors received the first set of vaccines, while the government now offers shots to people aged 50 and older, as well as to taxi drivers, journalists and people with diabetes.

But it has not been nearly enough to keep up with demand. Only 4 per cent of the Iranian public is fully vaccinated, government statistics showed.

Those with residency permits have sought shots in the UAE. Others have gone to Armenia, where authorities offer shots to visiting foreigners free of charge.

In Tehran, there have been claims that doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been smuggled in from Erbil, Iraq, as have ultra-cold freezers needed to store them. The shots are now allegedly for sale in the Iranian capital.

A two-dose Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccine goes for $390, while two Pfizer shots cost $1,350. Those who pay must trust that the shots are legitimate and have not expired.

Mahsa, a 31-year-old Tehran resident, said she obtained a dose of the Moderna vaccine through her partner’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 who was vaccinating people for profit.

Amirali said he took the chance because 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.

But for those who cannot pay, there are no shots.

Iran’s civilian government, now undergoing a transition of power to hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, has been overwhelmed by the crisis. And with the country also facing protests over economic issues, water shortages and power cuts, the government probably 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. I do not care about the restrictions any more.”

Updated: August 11th 2021, 11:56 AM
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