U.S. Sanctions are Preventing Iran from Coping with COVID-19

United States’ sanctions against Iran, which the Trump Administration has cruelly strengthened, continue to collectively punish extremely vulnerable people. Presently, the United States’ “maximum pressure” policy severely undermines Iranian efforts to cope with COVID-19, causing hardship and tragedy while contributing to the global spread of the pandemic. 

Now in 2020, Iraqis, still suffering from impoverishment, displacement, and war, earnestly want the United States to practice social distancing and leave their country.

On March 12, Iran’s foreign minister, Jawad Zarif, urged member states of the United Nations to end the United States’ unconscionable and lethal economic warfare. Addressing U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Zarif detailed how U.S. economic sanctions prevent Iranians from importing necessary medicine and medical equipment.

For more than two years, while the United States bullied other countries into refraining from purchasing Iranian oil, Iranians have faced crippling economic decline.

The devastated economy and worsening coronavirus outbreak are now driving millions of migrants and refugees out of Iran at a dramatically higher rate. In the last two weeks alone, more than 50,000 Afghans left Iran, increasing the likelihood that cases of coronavirus will surge in Afghanistan. Decades of war, including U.S. invasion and occupation, have decimated Afghanistan’s health care and food distribution systems.

Zarif has asked the United Nations to prevent the use of hunger and disease as a weapon of war. His letter demonstrates the wreckage caused by U.S. imperialism and suggests revolutionary steps toward dismantling the American war machine.


During the 1991 “Desert Storm” war against Iraq, I was part of the Gulf Peace Team. At first, we lived in a “peace camp” set up near the Iraq-Saudi border; later, following our removal by Iraqi troops, in a Baghdad hotel, which formerly housed many journalists. 

Finding an abandoned typewriter, we melted a candle onto its rim (the United States had destroyed Iraq’s electrical stations, and most of the hotel rooms were pitch black). We compensated for an absent typewriter ribbon by placing a sheet of red carbon paper over our stationery. 

When Iraqi authorities realized we managed to type our report, they asked if we would type their letter to the secretary general of the United Nations. (Iraq was so beleaguered that even cabinet-level officials lacked typewriter ribbons.) 

The letter to Javier Perez de Cuellar implored the U.N. to prevent the United States from bombing a road between Iraq and Jordan, the only way out for refugees and the only way in for humanitarian relief. By late 1991, Iraq was devastated by bombing and bereft of supplies. For the next thirteen years, the country was bombarded by a deadly sanctions regime—ending only when the United States invaded in 2003. 

Now in 2020, Iraqis, still suffering from impoverishment, displacement, and war, earnestly want the United States to practice social distancing and leave their country.

Are we now living in a watershed time? An unstoppable, deadly virus ignores any borders the United States tries to reinforce or redraw. The U.S. military-industrial complex, with its massive arsenal and cruel capacity for siege, isn’t relevant to “security” needs. 

Why should the United States, at this crucial juncture, threaten other countries and presume a right to preserve global inequities? Such arrogance doesn’t even ensure security for the U.S. military. If the United States further isolates and batters Iran, conditions will worsen in Afghanistan, and U.S. troops stationed there will ultimately be put at an even greater risk. The simple observation, “We are all part of one another,” becomes acutely evident.

It’s helpful to think of guidance from past leaders who faced wars and pandemics. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, coupled with the atrocities of World War I, killed 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 of whom were in the United States. 

Thousands of nurses were on the “front lines,” delivering health care. Among them were black nurses who  risked their lives to deliver treatment, while also fighting discrimination and racism. These brave women arduously paved the way for the first eighteen black nurses to serve in the Army Nurse Corps, and they provided “a small turning point in the continuing movement for health equity.”


In the spring of 1919, Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton witnessed the effects of sanctions against Germany imposed by allied forces after World War I. They observed “critical shortages of food, soap, and medical supplies” and wrote indignantly about how children were being punished with starvation for “the sins of statesmen.”

Starvation continued even after the blockade was finally lifted that summer, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hamilton and Addams reported how the flu epidemic, exacerbated in its spread by starvation and post-war devastation, in turn disrupted the food supply. The two women argued that a policy of sensible food distribution was necessary for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. 

“What was to be gained by starving more children?” bewildered German parents asked them.

In a recent analysis, Jonathan Whitall, who directs Humanitarian Analysis for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders, posed some agonizing questions:

How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap? How are you supposed to implement “social distancing” if you live in a slum or a refugee or containment camp? How are you supposed to stay at home if your work pays by the hour and requires you to show up? How are you supposed to stop crossing borders if you are fleeing from war? How are you supposed to get tested for #COVID19 if the health system is privatized and you can’t afford it? How are those with pre-existing health conditions supposed to take extra precautions when they already can’t even access the treatment they need?

As COVID-19 continues to spread, many people worldwide are thinking hard about the glaring, deadly inequalities in our societies. One way to help others survive is to insist that the United States lifts sanctions against Iran and instead supports practical care. We must jointly confront the coronavirus to construct a humane future for the world, without wasting time or resources on the continuation of our brutal wars.

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" » U.S. Sanctions are Preventing Iran from Coping with COVID-19." Kathy Kelly | Radio Free [Online]. Available: https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/18/u-s-sanctions-are-preventing-iran-from-coping-with-covid-19/. [Accessed: 2021-09-24T09:54:27+00:00]
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» U.S. Sanctions are Preventing Iran from Coping with COVID-19 | Kathy Kelly | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/18/u-s-sanctions-are-preventing-iran-from-coping-with-covid-19/ | 2021-09-24T09:54:27+00:00
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