Two Syrian women collect a prescription at a health clinic. Source: Flickr - DFID Two Syrian women collect a prescription at a health clinic. Source: Flickr - DFID

In this critical hour, all sanctions and hostilities must cease argues Chris Nineham

Given the British government’s disastrous domestic response to the Coronavirus crisis, it is not surprising that people are focussed on what’s happening in the UK.

But British and Western foreign policy risks spreading the virus in particularly deadly ways. The last two decades of Western invasions, sanctions, and bombing campaigns have helped to create conditions in which Coronavirus can thrive. Sharp foreign policy changes are needed to help stop the spread of the disease amongst some of the most vulnerable populations on earth.  

In Afghanistan, the situation is causing grave concern amongst health experts. The country has been devastated by decades of war, including 19 years of Western occupation. It currently has two rival governments and its degraded health system is already struggling to treat the increasing number of civilians affected by the ongoing war.

Visiting journalists report that at the moment there is only one hospital in the capital that can diagnose patients with the coronavirus. The hospital in West Kabul can treat just 150 patients at a time. The UN reported that at least 64,000 Afghans have either been deported or returned voluntarily from Iran in 2020 – an emergency meeting of private doctors there flagged up an emergency situation.  One doctor who was at the meeting said, “A doctor or a nurse may be able to buy some hand sanitiser and gloves for their homes, but we have hospitals in Kabul that don’t have clean water for doctors to wash their hands.”

The number of cases in Iraq is relatively low as I write, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) is so worried by the impact of war and internal crises on the health service in Iraq that they are trying to provide the country with protective equipment and facilities for seriously ill patients themselves. 

The situation in many other war-torn Middle Eastern countries is equally worrying. There are no official reports of cases in Syria but WHO has announced a ‘very high risk’ from the virus in Syria and there is widespread concern that the government may be suppressing news of outbreaks. WHO believes that the Syrian government’s capacity to cope with an outbreak has been “heavily impacted” by nine years of war, with only 50 percent of public hospitals fully functional.

Meanwhile, the murderous Western-backed war against Yemen continues, deepening the already desperate humanitarian situation there. A report produced jointly by Physicians for Human Rights and the Yemen-based human rights organization Mwatana for Human Rights, documents four years of attacks against health care facilities. It records 120 attacks against medical facilities between 2015 (when the war started) and 2018. The spread of cholera in the country is testimony to the breakdown of basic healthcare as a consequence of the war.  

The huge concentrations of impoverished people in refugee camps in the region with only the most basic healthcare pose a terrible risk. One paediatrician working in Turkey near the Syrian border, has warned of a desperate situation should the virus take hold in any of the refugee camps in northwest Syria:

“It would be a catastrophe. It would spread in the whole region because of the lack of capacity to contain an epidemic, the over crowdedness of camps, the inability of the hospitals to treat a large number of infected people and the lack of aid to support them.”

Meanwhile Iran, under extreme sanctions from the West, is suffering the third-worst outbreak of the virus anywhere in the world. Over 1,000 have now died and the daily death count is rising. In an indication that the official figures may be underestimating the problem, large numbers of Iranian government officials, parliamentarians and religious leaders have lost their lives to the disease.

The extent of the damage done by the sanctions is indicated by the fact that the Iranian government has just requested an emergency $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Virtually unreported, the Iranian government has been lobbying countries around the world to end the sanctions. In messages to various governments, President Hassan Rouhani has been making the case that the struggle against Coronavirus is “severely hampered by US sanctions.” His foreign minister Javad Zarif accused the US government of “medical terrorism.” As Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the few progressive voices on foreign policy in US politics tweeted last week, “we need to suspend these sanctions before more lives are lost.”

In these circumstances, it is disgraceful that there has been no foreign policy rethink since the Coronavirus outbreak. US sanctions against Iran and other vulnerable countries like Venezuela remain in force. On Tuesday, the US administration actually ramped up sanctions against Iran.

Bombing raids on targets in the Middle East continue. Just last week the US launched attacks in Iraq that killed members of the Iraqi army. Despite the fact that the Iraqi government has called for the removal of all Western forces from the country, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab supported the bombing raids, saying “UK forces are in Iraq with coalition partners to help the country counter-terrorist activity and anyone seeking to harm them can expect a strong response.”

Meanwhile, incredibly, the US and NATO are still only ‘rethinking how to do’ their biggest troop deployment on the European mainland since the end of the Cold War. The exercise, mistitled Operation Defender and reputedly costing the US alone $340 million, involves tens of thousands of NATO troops traversing the continent and moving close up to the Russian border.

It is a matter of urgency that all Western sanctions are lifted, that all hostilities cease and that Operation Defender is completely scrapped. Western troops should be pulled out of Iraq and other countries in the Middle East and beyond. Now is the time to push for the scrapping of Trident once again. The huge amounts of money saved should be spent on an emergency aid and investment programme to protect populations that have been made vulnerable by nearly two decades of catastrophic Western wars.

This article was originally published on Stop The War.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.