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Battling Coronavirus, Iran's Health Workers Complain Of Severe Shortages

An Iranian lab official registers people for coronavirus testing outside a lab in Tehran on March 9.

Iran's health workers are on the front lines of the country's battle with the coronavirus, which according to official figures has claimed the lives of 234 Iranians and infected more than 7,000.

But many of them lack protective wear to keep them safe while treating infected patients.

The situation is said to be particularly dire for health-care workers in the northern province of Gilan, one of Iran's coronavirus epicenters, where at least five doctors and three nurses have died recently of the COVID-19 disease.

Its victims include Vahid Monsef, a doctor who specialized in emergency medicine and an associate professor at Gilan's University of Medical Sciences, who died on March 9, according to Iran's semiofficial ISNA news agency. He had been helping treat COVID-19 patients at the time.

Narjes Khanalizadeh, one of the first nurses in Iran to fall victim to the outbreak, was also from Gilan. The 25-year-old Khanalizadeh died in February after contracting the coronavirus from patients she had been treating in a hospital in the city of Lahijan.

"We are in desperate need of N95 masks right now, and we ran out of them yesterday," the head of the Gilan Nursing Organization, Mohammad Delsuz, told the reformist Shargh daily on March 9.

"[Nurses] are now using masks that have been made at home and are not safe," Delsuz said, adding that masks and latex gloves were among the most pressing needs of nurses and other medical workers in Gilan.

A nurse wears protective gear in a ward dedicated to coronavirus infections at a hospital in Tehran on March 8.
A nurse wears protective gear in a ward dedicated to coronavirus infections at a hospital in Tehran on March 8.

On March 8, nurses at a hospital in the city of Langaroud, in Gilan, took to Instagram to warn that the shortage of protective wear was putting them at risk of contamination.

There are also reports of health workers testing positive for coronavirus in other Iranian provinces, including in Qom, where the first two cases of coronavirus were reported on February 19.

The head of Kerman's local Mining and Industry Organization, Mehdi Hosseininejad, said over the weekend that 41 percent of those infected with coronavirus in the province were health workers, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. He said a shortage of face masks, disinfectant alcohol, and gloves was behind the spread of coronavirus among health workers.

Speaking on March 9, the head of the national Nursing Organization, Mohammad Mirza Beigi, warned that health workers -- particularly nurses, who play a critical role in caring for coronavirus patients -- were among the most at risk of becoming infected.

"If a nurse who is working to treat patients and who does not have a mask, gloves, and protective wear becomes ill or dies, who is left to help the patients and serve the people?" he asked, adding that some health centers in the country lacked surgical masks, disposable gloves, protective gowns, and face shields.

"The nurses and health-care staff at medical centers take care of patients amid many difficulties," Mirza Beigi told the official government news agency IRNA. He added that the shortages for nurses in the country's northern provinces were "very worrying."

Sanctions Add To Strain

The coronavirus outbreak in Iran comes amid crippling U.S. economic and trade sanctions that, according to Human Rights Watch, "have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment."

Much of the protective wear, including masks, and many of the disinfectants are produced inside Iran. But many shortages have been reported since the coronavirus outbreak spread to all of the country's 31 provinces and stretched the hospitals and medical staffs to their limits.

Mirza Beigi suggested that hoarding had contributed to the severe strains on protective equipment. "It is very worrying that in these harsh conditions, some are putting people's lives at risk with the hoarding of these goods," he said, adding a call for tough judiciary action against the culprits.

He also called on Iranians to allow protective wear, including masks, to first be provided to health-care professionals who are endangering their own lives to save others.

Iranian medical personnel wearing protective gear work at the quarantine ward of a hospital in Tehran on March 1.
Iranian medical personnel wearing protective gear work at the quarantine ward of a hospital in Tehran on March 1.

Relief International, one of the few international charities that has an OFAC license to operate in Iran, said in late February that the country was facing a shortage of protective items for medical staff and kits to help diagnose the virus.

"There is an extreme shortage of these supplies in-country, where stock is often low due to the steep price of medicines and medical equipment -- a consequence of U.S. sanctions," Relief International said on February 29.

The organization said on March 2 that it had received the first shipment of protective medical gear for health workers battling the coronavirus in Iran. "This shipment includes 5,000 goggles and 24,000 masks -- enough to protect 2,000 health workers for the next two weeks," the international aid organization said via Twitter.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also sent aid to assist Iran in its fight against the coronavirus. WHO's Iran representative, Christoph Hamelman, said on March 2 that a cargo plane had landed in Iran with protective equipment for 15,000 health workers to strengthen Iran's response.

The United States has offered to help Iranian officials' response to the outbreak. But that offer has been dismissed by Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rohani, who suggested last week that the U.S. offer was disingenuous.

Italy and Iran have the highest death tolls from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged late last year.

A number of Iranian officials, including a vice president and a deputy health minister, have contracted the virus. Several other officials, including an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have died of COVID-19.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.