Geopolitics

Iranian Nurses Demand Government Stop Stalling On Vaccines

Iranian nurses are overworked and underpaid, and now angered by the government's seeming reluctance to purchase coronavirus vaccines.

Iran currently faces a severe nursing shortage
Kayhan London

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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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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