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‘There isn’t a single stretcher left’ in Iran as ‘apocalyptic’ wave of Covid-19 hits

Iranians are facing a fourth wave of Covid-19 and it is shaping up to be the worst since the start of the pandemic. According to official figures, there are no beds left in life support units anywhere in Iran. And there are no beds available in any units of the 100 hospitals in Tehran, the capital. With no hope of rapid, widespread vaccination any time soon, healthcare workers are at a crisis point.

Around 500 people a day are dying of Covid-19 in Iran, according to official statistics, though the actual number could be higher. The official pandemic death toll has risen to 70,000— a number that, according to Iran’s Scientific Council, has been underreported and could, in reality, be four times higher.

READ MORE: Authorities in Iran ‘hiding’ COVID-19 deaths by listing other causes on death reports

Last year, the FRANCE 24 Observers team published a series of articles about the way the pandemic had severely impacted the country, but all of the healthcare workers that we interviewed in the past few days said that what they are experiencing right now is worse than the situation in 2020.

This video was filmed in a hospital in Nahavand (in western Iran) on April 16, 2021, where there are no beds left. 

‘It’s apocalyptic’

Jamshid (not his real name) is a supplier for medical materials who works with hospitals in Tehran:

There are literally no places left in Tehran’s hospitals. They have filled the cafeterias and the treatment rooms with beds for patients with Covid-19. Some hospitals have been transformed into Covid-19 centers: Masih Daneshvari hospital, for example, is no longer accepting people in their emergency room. There’s no room, there aren’t even any stretchers left. They’ve even moved storage containers into the corridors in order to fit more beds in.

The lack of medication is also putting patients’ lives in danger. For example, a patient is supposed to be given two pills of Kaletra [an antiviral drug, editor’s note] every eight hours. But because they don’t have enough, they have only been giving patients one pill.

Aside from the lack of supplies, the crisis is also putting a huge mental burden on medical personnel. The number of deaths is rising every day, which is incredibly difficult to bear. I hear the same thing in all of the hospitals that I go to: The healthcare workers can’t continue in these conditions.

I have also noticed that more and more people living in the suburbs of Tehran are coming to the capital for treatment because there are no more beds in their area. The hospitals [in the suburbs] are even more saturated than those in Tehran. The family members of patients gather outside these suburban hospitals, sitting or sleeping in their cars or in hospital courtyards. Some courtyards contain bodies waiting to be transferred. There is pain and hopelessness in the eyes of these people. It’s apocalyptic and incredibly hard to witness.

Devant un hôpital de Téhéran, la famille d’un patient, résidant d’une autre ville, dort dans une voiture. Photo prise par notre Observateur le 17 avril 2021.

On April 21, the principal morgue in Tehran reported the highest number of deaths on a single day in 50 years: 150 Covid-19 deaths and 200 deaths from other causes.

These new graves were dug in the main cemetery in Tehran on April 21, 2021. The managers of the cemetery have been preparing deep graves, which can each contain up to four people

‘The health system has already collapsed’

Shima (not her real name) is a doctor in a small town in Mazandaran province, which is located in the north. She has been ill with Covid-19 twice.

In spite of our principles and our professional ethics, we openly instruct people to not go to the hospital because we are sure that they will get even sicker. High concentrations of the virus and its variants are present in hospitals and we can’t do anything about that.

The few respirators that we have are being used. We don’t have any beds or medicine and, soon, we won’t have any more oxygen.

We are completely stretched thin and we can’t take care of the patients properly because we spend our days rushing from one patient to another. Even if a person manages to find a bed, then she will have to pay a lot for nothing — it costs between two and three million tomans for one night [Between €66 and €100, when the minimum monthly salary is €88, editor’s note].

Even if a patient with Covid-19 stays at home, treatment is expensive. They will need to pay eight million tomans [€267] for medicine. They might end up needing bottles of oxygen, as well. For a week of oxygen, you have to spend six million tomans [€200]. So that adds up to about 14 million tomans [€467] for the bare minimum of care even if you stay home from the hospital and try to treat your Covid-19 at home.

To add to that, right now, about 30 percent of doctors, nurses and others are currently Covid-19 positive and some of them have to keep coming to work because of staff shortages. We don’t have any more PCR testing kits. We have nano masks, which are a bit better than surgical masks, but we don’t have any N95 masks. We don’t have gloves. We don’t even have a room for our sick colleagues. They sleep on the ground.

In the last 24 hours [April 21, editor’s note], in the only service in our little town, we received more than 150 patients with Covid-19. We have heard that, every day, two or three of our fellow healthcare workers die of Covid-19 or a heart attack that is connected to the virus and being overwhelmed with work. During the pandemic, we’ve been working two or three times more hours than we did in normal times. Most of us haven’t even gotten a vaccine yet.

At least 533 healthcare workers have died of Covid-19 in Iran since the start of the pandemic, according to numbers compiled by me. Across the globe, at least 17,000 healthcare workers have lost their lives due to the virus, including 3,500 in the United States, the country where the death rate is highest, according to the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

A doctor at the hospital of Navahand (in western Iran) posted this photo illustrating just how much strain healthcare workers are under. “We only have 16 beds in our unit, but we already have 83 patients with just two nurses to treat them. Our colleagues are dying. One day in this wave is like a week during the last one. To stay alive, please don’t come to the hospital,” he wrote.

I’m not sure for the other regions or the big cities, but from what I’ve seen, the healthcare system has collapsed. I’ve never seen anything like it. When, as a doctor, I tell my patients to go home despite their infected lungs, when I can’t do anything but pray for them, for me, it is clear that this health system has collapsed.

According to official figures, Iran, which has a population of nearly 83 million, has so far administered 700,000 doses of vaccine, most of them the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. On January 8, 2021, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the import of any American or Russian vaccines.

This video was filmed on April 16, 2021 in a hospital in Dehdasht, in southeastern Iran.

It’s not official, but the real political strategy is herd immunity’

Hadi Yazdani is a doctor in Isfahan (in central Iran). He described the situation in his town:

I believe the number of deaths has risen for socio-economic reasons. Our economy has been shattered by the American economic sanctions and the Iranian government’s failings. Numerous governments have put in place a system where they give financial support to people to stay at home and, thus, reduce the risk of contamination.

But here there is nothing of the sort, because of Iran’s economic situation. People have to go to work to make a living, which accelerates the spread of the virus. When a person gets ill, they should stay at home for 14 days but, in reality, the person needs to go to work.

And just like in the rest of the world, we have people here who don’t believe in science. Unfortunately, they have some influence and power. They advertise stupid cures, which put people in danger.

Since the start of the pandemic, many Iranians have been criticising the way that the religious authorities have handled the crisis. Some blame the ayatollahs, powerful religious leaders, not just for standing in the way of important health measures but also for promoting traditional Islamic medicine, which they say has cost lives.

READ MORE: Prophet’s perfume and flower oil: how Islamic medicine has made Iran’s Covid-19 outbreak worse

I have had patients who are really sick, whose lungs are infected by the coronavirus, and who will look at me straight in the eyes and say that the virus doesn’t exist.

But even if the government doesn’t say it publicly, their policy for managing the Covid-19 pandemic has been, since day one, that of herd immunity. They haven’t done a real lockdown, they haven’t banned people from flying to countries with high-risk levels and they haven’t really invested in an efficient vaccination campaigns.

I don’t understand why they don’t reinforce restrictions in order to avoid a total collapse of the health system. I think that there will be more waves and without radical political measures, this situation will continue for two more years.

As in other countries, there are different coronavirus variants circulating in Iran. In April, 10 representatives from the Scientific Council announced that the variant that was circulating most widely in the country was the “UK variant”.

On February 28, 2020, Iranian deputy Gholareza Imanabadi publicly accused the health ministry of hiding the real numbers: “I said it clearly, the numbers that were announced are a lie. You can’t hide cemeteries.”

On August 1, 2020, BBC’s Persian-language service reported that they had obtained access to documents that showed that the real death toll from the pandemic was three times that of the official figures.

First published here on France24.

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