December 10, 2023

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Coronavirus: Iran asks for IMF help for first time in six decades as disease ravages country …

Iran has asked for a $5bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund to alleviate the devastating impact of coronavirus, which has killed at least 429 Iranians as it shakes fragile Middle Eastern health systems and economies already burdened by war, sanctions and corruption. 

Iran central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati disclosed on his Instagram account on Thursday that he had formally requested a bailout from the Washington-based international lender last week, suggesting he had yet to receive a reply. It would mark the first time in nearly 60 years that Iran has asked the IMF for help.

The multilateral institution was established in the waning months of the Second World War as one of several institutions to shape the global economy, with a mandate to help governments get through fiscal crunches. The IMF announced last week that it was making $50bn in low- and zero-interest loans available to poor and developing countries struggling to cope with the effects of coronavirus.

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But Iran is also under heavy US sanctions, reimposed by the administration of Donald Trump. Washington remains the main contributor to the IMF and its key voice, retaining de facto veto power over its decisions. 

The IMF “should adhere to the fund’s mandate, stand on [the] right side of history and act responsibly,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wrote in a tweet. 

With at least 10,075 cases so far, the coronavirus has struck Iran harder than any other country in the Middle East, with only Italy and China impacted as gravely worldwide. After initially downplaying the illness and failing to take draconian measures, Iran has begun to ask for help.

“No one should lose their life because of lack of funds for medical equipment,” Mr Hemmati wrote. 

Iranian health officials said on Thursday that deaths due to the virus were tapering off in the hard-hit northern province of Gilan, but were gathering momentum in central Yazd province.

Many fear the worst is yet to come as the flu-like virus courses its way through war-ravaged neighbours such as Iraq and Afghanistan – bridges to the Arab world and South Asia. 

Among aid workers there was grave concern that coronavirus would make its way into northwest Syria’s contested Idlib province, where besieged and overtaxed hospitals already subject to bombings are ill-equipped to deal with what the World Health Organisation on Wednesday described as a pandemic. 

Relief organisations are concerned about a weakened population on the move suffering from various stages of malnutrition while exposed to the elements. 

“This is all taking us by surprise,” Steve Gumaer, of the US-based charity Partners Relief and Development, said in an interview. The organisation, which has helped rebuild clinics and schools in Raqqa, Hasaka and Manbij, has scrambled to provide coronavirus testing kits and train medical personnel to safely probe for the virus. 

“We’ve been working in northeast Syria for years, and the coronavirus wasn’t part of our programme delivery,” he said.

Health officials in Libya, scene of another Arab civil war, have also sounded the alarm about the threat the virus could pose if it arrives in the country, where a nine-year armed conflict has eroded public infrastructure. 

War-ruined Yemen, which has already suffered through a years-long cholera epidemic, is bracing itself for a possible outbreak of the virus, preparing isolation wards at its crumbling hospitals. 

Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region has banned all “non-essential” movement for everyone except diplomats, aid workers and those struggling to contain the virus, and has closed off its borders with Iran. 

At least 100 people have been diagnosed with the virus in Israel, with at least 91 in hospital as the small country takes extraordinary steps to halt the growth of the illness, including barring gatherings of more than 100 people and, for the first time since the country’s inception, banning spectators from the annual torch-lighting ceremony to mark its independence day on 28 April.

Egypt has also confirmed at least 67 cases, but many have reported coming down with the virus after leaving the country, suggesting a more widespread outbreak. 

There are numerous signs the epidemic is provoking public panic. In Kuwait, with at least 80 cases, some have accused a low-cost airline, Jazeera Airways, of bringing in passengers carrying the virus, demanding it be shut down.

Normally bustling commercial streets in Beirut were a ghost town after Lebanon had recorded 58 infections and at least three deaths due to coronavirus by Thursday – it has banned flights from 11 countries. Worshippers have been asked to bring their own, clean prayer rugs to mosques to halt the spread of the virus, according to international media

In Turkey, news of the first confirmed case of coronavirus on Wednesday prompted residents to stockpile food and supplies, emptying supermarket shelves of pasta, rice, dried beans and hygienic products, including cologne, wet wipes and hand sanitiser. 

Special thermal cameras are being used to monitor Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his entourage to make sure they don’t come down with the illness, which has proven fatal in about 1 to 2 per cent of patients. 

There were also worries among health officials that the virus was spreading even further, having penetrated Africa, with cases reported in Senegal and Ivory Coast. 
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