U.S. extends brutal sanctions amid global health crisis
Zeng Ziyi
People attend a protest in Washington, D.C. against U.S. sanctions on Iran, where the death toll from COVID-19 is approaching 1,300. /Reuters

People attend a protest in Washington, D.C. against U.S. sanctions on Iran, where the death toll from COVID-19 is approaching 1,300. /Reuters

As humanity confronts a dangerous and extremely contagious virus, several countries including Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are carrying the extra burden of surviving under brutal, U.S.-imposed economic sanctions while juggling to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Despite calls from world leaders to ease unilateral sanctions, the Trump administration has tightened its choke on Iran's economy with increased punitive measures while continuing to carry out regime change operations throughout Latin America during the pandemic. The risks posed by these opportunistic actions to enforce U.S. hegemony have become increasingly visible as COVID-19 cases rise above two million globally.

After enduring years of harsh U.S. sanctions, Iran faced substantial logistical challenges as it headed into the pandemic. Although humanitarian goods are technically exempted, import of these goods are frequently missed or delayed due a supply chain complicated by sanctions. 

The country became an early hot zone for the virus alongside Italy, Spain and China. After the first case was confirmed on February 19, nearly 20,000 people had become infected before the Iranian New Year one month later.

During its peak, COVID-19 killed at least one person every 10 minutes in Iran, according to the country's health ministry. Rapid transmission of the disease was exacerbated by a shortage of medical supplies due to U.S. sanctions as doctors and nurses were forced to treat patients without protective gears. As Iran struggled to cope with a surge of cases, President Trump continued his "maximum pressure" campaign by imposing a new round of sanctions on March 26.

Although U.S. sanctions have largely targeted government entities, the impact are being felt mostly by average people. Pharmaceutical imports from major source Europe fell sharply in 2018, when President Trump announced the United States' exit from the multilateral Iran nuclear deal put together by the previous Obama administration.

Those worst-hit by sanctions include patients with serious medical conditions such as epilepsy, leukemia and eye injuries from exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, according to Human Rights Watch. In November last year, 15 children with a rare skin condition died after a Swedish drug company halted its shipment to comply with U.S. sanctions. A lack of treatment would likely increase mortality rate among those with pre-existing conditions, who are most susceptible to COVID-19.

"Indeed, the Donald Trump administration's refusal to halt its economic warfare against Iran is directly impeding our efforts to deal with a virus which knows no borders," wrote Tehran's Mayor Pirouz Hanachi in The Guardian. "Is it in the U.S.'s national interest for the coronavirus pandemic to become permanent?"

In late March, the UK, France and Germany bypassed American sanctions and sold medical goods to Iran using a bartering system. Although the goods were unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic, they would help alleviate pressure on the overstretched public health system.

"The U.S. thinking is clear, it aims to use the pandemic to accelerate regime change in Iran," observed Zhou Rong, a senior researcher at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies under Renmin University of China, told CGTN. Zhou said current infection numbers indicate Iran will likely emerge out of the pandemic despite economic pressure from the U.S.

Like Iran, Venezuela has suffered crippling U.S. sanctions for years which had left its economy in tatters long before the pandemic broke out. So far, the country has avoided large number of infections, reporting just over 200 cases. However, its broken health public health system which lacks basic necessities including soap, is in no shape to take on highly contagious disease such as COVID-19 once cases begin to pile on. 

With one of the highest crude oil reserves in the world and a socialist government who refuses to bow down to Washington's imperial rule, the country has been a top target of U.S. regime change operations.

On the same day the Trump administration announced sanctions against Iran, U.S. Attorney General William Barr also unveiled charges against Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and other top officials, accusing the government of engaging in "narco-terrorism" while putting a 15-million-U.S.-dollar bounty on information leading to the president's capture.

On April 4, amid rising coronavirus cases in the U.S., President Trump announced that U.S. Navy ships were heading toward Venezuelan coast in the name of beefing up counter-narcotics operations. The deployment is one of the largest U.S. military operations in the region since 1988 invasion of Panama which toppled the country's former leader Manuel Noriega.

The one-two punch of indictment followed by military movement runs an eerily similar course to the 1988 invasion that saw thousands of civilians killed when 27,000 U.S. troops stormed the Central American country. Notably, Barr was responsible for providing legal basis of the Panama invasion for former President Reagan.

In a letter addressed to the American public, President Maduro asked the American people to question Trump's motive and expressed solidarity as the country battles the novel coronavirus.

"I ask you, with your heart in your hands, not to allow your country to be drawn, once again, to another endless conflict, another Vietnam or another Iraq, but this time closer to home," the letter said.

The U.S. has sabotaged the leftist government of Venezuela for decades in an effort to bring one of the most oil-rich countries in the world to its orbit. Under President Trump, the U.S. government has propped up self-styled Venezuelan dissident Juan Guaido to lead in its latest regime change adventure which resulted in a coup attempt in 2019.