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Iran struggles with Covid-19, U.S. sanctions and collapsing economy

Iranians are suffering from interlinking maladies: the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, intensifying U.S. sanctions and a collapsing economy.
Image: An Iranian woman wearing a face mask walks on a street after Iranian authorities made it mandatory for all to wear face mask in public following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID19), in Tehran
On Monday, Iran reported 337 deaths from the coronavirus in the previous 24 hours — the highest since February.Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

TEHRAN, Iran — Finding it harder and harder to feed his family of four on a salary equivalent to around $100 a month, earlier this year cleaner Javad Mamashty got another job as a caretaker at an apartment block in the south of Tehran. But along with extra cash — about $30 every four weeks — Mamashty picked up Covid-19.

The coronavirus forced Mamashty, 48, to isolate in his house for weeks, which meant losing the second job. Since August, he said, he has burned through his savings, which “weren’t much to begin with.” Now he’s stuck with one income that doesn’t allow him to cover the basics.

“Life is very, very hard. Rents have gone through the roof. The cost of basic goods, medicines, are extraordinary,” Mamashty told NBC News over the weekend, referencing runaway inflation, which hit 30.5 percent in October.

“The future for me looks dark,” he said.

Image: Javad Mamashty
Javad MamashtyAli Arouzi / NBC News

Mamashty is not alone. Across the country, Iranians are suffering from acute interlinking maladies: the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, intensifying U.S. sanctions and a collapsing economy.

And there is no end in sight. On Monday, officials reported 337 deaths from the virus in the previous 24 hours — the highest since February, and pushing the overall toll to 30,712.

Eight months after the pandemic first stormed Iran, pummeling the already-weakened economy and sickening officials at the highest levels of government, authorities have not been able to prevent its spread.

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Hospitals are running close to capacity, according to hospital officials. On Oct. 14, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who tested positive for the virus in February after dismissing reports of fatalities, said Iran's true death toll was likely twice the official count.

Still, the government has not imposed a nationwide lockdown as the economy buckles under U.S. sanctions imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Since then, the Trump administration has pursued a campaign of "maximum pressure" on the country of around 83 million in a bid to cut Iran off from the world financial system and squeeze concessions from the government.

On Oct. 8., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S. would sanction 18 major Iranian banks, triggering a plunge in the country’s currency, the rial.

Last month, the U.S. unilaterally announced that almost all previously terminated United Nations sanctions against Iran had been restored, a move rejected as illegal by most other countries.

Meanwhile, hospitals in Tehran are almost at capacity, according to hospital officials. On social media, Iranians regularly describe chaotic scenes at overwhelmed medical facilities. On state TV, gravediggers break new ground in vast cemeteries for virus victims. Daily death toll records were shattered three times last week.

Contradictory messages have plagued the government's virus response. At first, officials sought to play down the virus as authorities declined to close crowded religious shrines. But as infections swelled in March, the government ordered offices and nonessential businesses to shut down. Roughly two weeks later, shops and restaurants reopened in major cities.

Then authorities again did a U-turn, introducing restrictions and issuing dramatic warnings. Many beauty salons, mosques, museums and libraries have shuttered. Last week, the Health Ministry imposed a travel ban to and from five major cities, including Tehran.

Image: A Covid-19 patient is treated at the Shohadaye Tajrish Hospital in Tehran.
A Covid-19 patient is treated at the Shohadaye Tajrish Hospital in Tehran.Akbar Badrkhani / AP

Many ordinary Iranians, accustomed to hardship and skeptical of state-run news and official claims, are still packing cafes, bazaars and restaurants. But fear of the pandemic is having an impact, and in Tehran, a sprawling city of around 10 million people, growing numbers are starting to wear masks on the streets.

Mitra Hosseini, 37, an architect and single mother who was already struggling before the pandemic hit has seen her work virtually dry up in the past months.

“I don’t have clients like in the past — the coronavirus has been the final blow,” she said.

The Covid-19 economic troubles plus the pressure of sanctions is making the future hard to imagine, she said. What worries her the most, she said, is what would be next for her daughter, who is 7, and the rest of her generation.

“There is not much hope,” she said. “We are stuck.”

Ali Arouzi and Amin Hossein Khodadadi reported from Tehran. Adela Suliman reported from London.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.