Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has ordered more nurses and health care workers be recruited to fight the coronavirus pandemic. But their lives are at risk in a country that has done little yet to secure doses of COVID-19 vaccines, citing U.S. sanctions on the regime as its reason. It is an excuse rejected by the United States, international agencies and even some of Iran's own health officials.

Khamenei, speaking on Dec. 20, officially dubbed Nursing Day, also ordered that nurses be paid the wages set in the law. He said he had ordered the hiring of 20,000 additional nurses over the past four years, but "existing problems" had prevented it.

The country currently faces a severe nursing shortage. It should have 2.5 nurses per hospital bed. But since the pandemic began here, there has been a 400% increase in emigration by nurses, especially following eased migratory conditions for nurses in other countries. The Supreme Leader said recruiting nurses was a matter of urgency. "It's not a joke," he added. "Nurses must have working conditions allowing them to do their jobs without concerns for their own health. Their families shouldn't have to worry about their situation."

One of the central demands of unions is for nurses to be paid wages set by the state 14 years ago, but the health ministry says it lacks the funds to pay nurses the set fees. Beyond wages and work conditions, nurses and medical cadres must now work with the threat of contracting COVID-19. According to the Nursing Organization (Sazman-e nezam-e parastari) the coronavirus has so far killed 100 nurses and infected more than 60,000.

All our hope is on producing the vaccine inside the country.

In the face of the staffing shortages, some are also seeing the so-called "Karoshi syndrome" among nurses, taken from a Japanese word for being worked to death. Heart attacks and fatal car accidents among health care workers are rising.

The Health Minister Sa'id Namaki has meanwhile claimed he has ordered medical staff working in COVID wards to be paid bonuses. His ministry has made many such promises since the pandemic began, though staff have seen little of the financial backing promised.

While countries like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are either purchasing vaccines or have begun vaccinating, and other neighboring countries like Iraq are preparing for vaccinations, Iranian officials have announced no mass purchases and are not even sure which vaccine to buy. After initially claiming it wasn't allowed to pay the UN's Covax agency for vaccines because of sanctions, the regime has found a new excuse for its delays, namely lack of foreign exchange.

Iranian officials have announced no mass purchases of vaccines — Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

The head of the parliamentary health committee, Hossein'ali Shahryari, says "we could not yet find the resources for the corona-vaccine or transfer them abroad. So all our hope is on producing the vaccine inside the country."

Shahryari says Iran would not start mass production of its own vaccines before late spring or early summer of 2021. But officials will not clarify why they insist on reinventing the wheel. Why turn to foreign vaccines, which in this case are likely to be Russian or Chinese, especially when the public distrusts those vaccines? Not surprisingly, the government is offering cash prizes for testing volunteers!

The head of the Medical Council (Sazman-e nezam pezeshki) Mohammadreza Zafarqandi, has separately written to the health minister asking for a date when vaccines would be ready. Time, he reminded the minister, was essential in fighting the pandemic and added that he was ready to help the government in the "diplomacy" needed to purchase vaccines.

Nurses meanwhile took to Twitter on December 20, joining the buy vaccines hashtag urging authorities to purchase them as soon as possible for high-risk groups to begin getting vaccinated.

It is not clear why Iranian authorities are delaying purchasing and the entire vaccination process. Whatever the reason, those standing in the way are undeniably responsible for the deaths each day of 300 people and thousands of infections.

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