Overwhelmed with exhaustion and working up to 19 hours a day as Iran tries to combat the spread of coronavirus, Aref, a nurse in a small town in the south-west of the country, has started to worry about his own health.

Around two dozen medical staff have died so far in the Islamic republic, not least because of a lack of medical equipment in one of the countries worst hit by the virus.

“We are running this small hospital with minimum facilities. We do not have hazmat suits and instead wear surgical gowns which keep our heads and faces exposed and we are short of latex and sterile gloves,” said Aref, 25, who sleeps in a house with five other nurses to protect their families from the virus.

In an ideal world, medical staff would change face masks frequently to ensure that they do not spread the virus, but Aref keeps his in his pocket during his seven-hour shift “to repeatedly use it which means I may be a carrier of the virus myself”. He did not want to publish the name of the town for fear of repercussions.

Iran’s medical system, with its highly specialised doctors, has long been seen as one of the best in the region, attracting patients from nearby countries. As the virus spreads — there are nearly 1,300 fatalities and Iranian epidemiologists fear it could reach 60 per cent of Iran’s 80m population — medical staff have been hailed as heroes.

“Defenders of health will be treated like defenders of our borders,” said Saeed Namaki, Iran’s health minister, hailing the doctors who died of coronavirus as ‘martyrs’. President Hassan Rouhani said this week that “we bow to doctors and nurses”.

But many, like Aref, complain of a lack of equipment and support. “We decided to put our own money and buy medical equipment to safeguard our staff. We have no doubt casualties are going up and fear shortages may become more severe,” one surgeon at a state-affiliated hospital in Tehran said.

Analysts say this is partly because of tough sanctions, introduced in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal agreed between the Islamic republic and world powers. While food and medicine are exempted, imports are frequently delayed because Iran is cut off from the international financial system.

“When the government doesn’t have the money and coronavirus has paralysed an already-weak economy, how can it quarantine cities and buy medical equipment?” said Ahmad Ghavidel, head of the Iranian Haemophilia Society. “We definitely blame the US sanctions for our high number of deaths and consider this a war crime . . . as civilians are harmed.”

The Islamic republic has appealed for international help to secure equipment such as test kits, ventilators, hazmat suits, gloves and masks. “Unlawful US sanctions drained Iran’s economic resources, impairing ability to fight #COVID19,” said Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a twitter post on Tuesday.
Those who try to import medical goods describe complicated supply chains.

“Medical universities in Gilan and Mazandaran call me and say if the equipment does not arrive, nurses and doctors will abandon jobs,” said the managing director of one trading company. “We need to have permission to import medical equipment at the shortest possible time instead of going through a Turkish channel, then to UAE, back to Turkey and finally to Tehran.”

Source » Iranians.global