In Iran, if the Coronavirus ravaging the country doesn’t kill you, the regime’s negligence and the resulting desperation may well do, as a horrific spate of deaths amongst Ahwazis shows.
According to reports from Ahwazi activists in the southwest of the country, Ahwazis infected with the virus and left without medical help have resorted to drinking lethal industrial alcohol typically used in sanitation in a desperate effort to ‘cure’ themselves, with at least 62 or more than 10 per cent of the 500 people in the region believed to have tried the horrific and toxic fake cure dying as a result in the three days up to Tuesday. Much of the alcohol had been mixed with bleach, making it even more poisonous for consumption. Many others who drank it were left blind or suffered heart attacks or strokes as a result of drinking the highly toxic industrial alcohol. Doctors have warned that the number of fatalities is likely to rise, given the seriousness of the internal injuries sustained by those who drank the highly corrosive substance.
All the fatalities to date are among males aged between 16 and 35, with the youngest victim a teenager aged under 16.
Up until Tuesday, the regime had admitted the deaths of 291 citizens from the Coronavirus, including regime officials, although unofficial reports from doctors, nurses and activists in the country say that the real figure is far higher.
It’s not known who started the rumour that the industrial alcohol would be an effective cure, although similarly dangerous fake ‘cures’, including drinking raw bleach or silver polish, have been circulating on social media worldwide.
While all forms of alcohol and intoxicants are illegal under Iranian law, there are places that sell alcoholic drinks in secret, with the owners paying bribes to police and anti-narcotics forces; most of the alcohol sold there is smuggled, although there’s some history of people distilling the often dangerously powerful and toxic ethanol alcohol used for industrial sanitation and other purposes. Ahwazi activists explained that these ethanol alcohols are sometimes licensed for external medical use and sold in pharmacies, with young people who can’t afford the extremely expensive illicitly smuggled alcohol diluting this rubbing alcohol with juice to make it easier to drink. Anyone caught by the Iranian authorities drinking any kind of alcohol will be detained and publicly flogged.
A report issued on Monday by Dr. Ali Ihsan Pur, a spokesman for Ahwaz University for Medical Sciences, confirmed that the number of deaths from drinking toxic industrial alcohol as an attempted ‘cure’ for the virus had reached 30 in the previous two days. The report added that most of the known victims had been discovered in Ahwaz city and the surrounding area, although one had been documented in the city of Falahiyeh and another in Khalafiyeh city.
As well as the fatalities, many of those drinking the industrial alcohol suffered severe medical effects, including heart attacks, strokes and vascular injuries, as well as complete loss of vision.
It should be noted that while some international media have reported the deaths and injuries, they have not mentioned the fact that all those affected were Ahwazis or made any reference to the regime’s medical negligence towards Ahwazis and other minorities.
According to reports from Ahwazi activists, those who suffered internal injuries as a result of drinking the industrial alcohol are receiving only minimal treatment rather than the intensive medical care they need, with concern rising that this medical negligence may contribute to increasing the number of deaths. Many in Ahwaz have reported that the medical staff at the hospitals, mostly Persian Iranians from other parts of the country brought in by the regime in an effort to alter the demographic ratios in the predominantly Arab region, treat the indigenous Ahwazi people with ill-disguised contempt.
This negligence and a widespread lack of sufficiently expert medical staff, coupled with the seriousness of the internal injuries among those affected by drinking the industrial alcohol, has led to concerns that it is very likely the number of deaths will increase in the coming hours and days. This likelihood is increased by the lack of any dialysis facilities in local hospitals to detoxify those affected and provide transfusions to those affected.
A local witness is talking about dozens of mostly young Ahwazi who died as a result of bootleg alcohol.
The rash of deaths began after rumours spread on social media networks, including Instagram, in recent days, claiming falsely that drinking industrial alcohol would strengthen the immune system against Coronavirus; with the regime failing to take any measures to protect Ahwazis and other marginalised minorities against infection or to offer medical advice, frantically worried residents turned to these dangerous fake’ cures’ promoted on social media, rushing to pharmacies and other outlets to buy rubbing alcohol and other forms of industrial alcohol. Some even said that they had asked the pharmacists before buying the alcohol if it would be safe to drink, adding that they were told that it would be safe as long it was diluted with orange juice or other fruit juice.
In reality, industrial alcohol is highly toxic and unsafe for human consumption.
Irina Tsukerman, an American human rights activist and lawyer based in New-York said, “There are points worth noting about the appalling tragedy which took the lives of 62 young Ahwazis, all between the ages of 16 and 35, and blinded the survivors (approximately 500 in all, a number curiously similar to those perished and injured in the Mashhour massacre not so long ago.)”
“First, Iranian outlets reported these deaths as “Iranian”. The regime and even many in the Iranian opposition refuse to acknowledge the distinct identity of the Ahwazis, which are the majority of the population in that area despite many attempts at depopulation and displacement. The regime engages (and most Iranians tolerate) in vast discrimination and abusive practices against its Ahwazi population as well as other non-Persian segments of the population. At the same time, however, the regime insists on calling everyone “Iranian”, even as it treats non-Persians as second-class citizens and works to erase their distinct cultural identities. The readers of the stories would not know that the 62 who died and the rest who were poisoned and blinded as a result of this tragedy already suffer a uniquely burdensome fate under the regime’s yoke.”
“Second, this episode illustrates extreme negligence by the regime concerning all of its population in general, and the Ahwazis specifically. Misinformation concerning the illness and the cure, cover-up in the papers, understated numbers of those fallen ill or deceased from Coronavirus, lack of standards for the pharmaceutical industry, and exceptionally ill-equipped hospitals, particularly in the peripheral regions populated mostly by non-Persians are just some of the factors contributing to the disproportional nature of such incidences among Ahwazis and others. There is no response to the dire medical needs by the people; they are left mostly on their own with no proper medical care. Even the top echelons of power fail to exercise judicious actions to prevent illness; what more can be said about the people living in dire poverty with low literacy rates and lack of access to education or accurate information?”
Each of the deaths represents a major loss of face for the regime which has discredited itself by demonstrating that its promotion of superstition and blind uncritical acceptance of religious dogma has a damaging effect on critical thinking skills in society, as well as devaluing scientific and medical knowledge that could have helped to prevent or at least mitigate the outbreak of disease.
Many in Ahwaz have expressed anger and frustration at the latest senseless deaths and injuries among fit young people, asking who will hold social media accountable for circulating lies or hold the pharmacists who assured customers that drinking industrial alcohol would be safe to account. Ahwazis already struggling to survive in one of the poorest regions of Iran are wondering how those left blind or with permanent serious internal injuries will be able to afford the medical care they may need for the rest of their lives, and who will compensate their families for the lost earnings of those left incapacitated and unable to work.
As the people are well aware, the regime will turn its back on these citizens as it usually does, showing no accountability to any citizens, with the international community lacking both the interest or the means to prosecute Iran’s regime for its comprehensive failure to respond to the tragedy and protect the people, more especially the worst affected marginalised minorities who already suffer systemic persecution and injustice. As many have noted, with Iran’s forces spreading across the region, it’s likely to be exporting the Coronavirus, as well as its customary cruel practices.
The Global Strategy to Prevent Harmful Use of Alcohol, approved by the Sixty-third World Health Assembly in May 2010, obliges WHO member states to take sustainable measures at all levels to reduce alcohol use and preserve the safety of citizens. The strategy emphasises that member states are primarily responsible for formulating, implementing and monitoring conditions leading to the death or injury of citizens from drinking alcohol.
While all other countries try to adopt responsible national strategies and an appropriate legal framework to limit the harmful use of alcohol, the Islamic Republic of Iran simultaneously outlaws all production and consumption of liquor while leaving the most vulnerable group, adolescents and young people, unprotected and ignorant about the terrible dangerous of drinking lethal industrial alcohol, leading to regular deaths as a result. This irresponsible and dangerous policy risks citizens’ lives and is all too literally killing citizens for the sake of backwards laws.
This article has been updated today March 19, 2020.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
Mostafa Hetteh is a writer and journalist: https://twitter.com/mostafahetteh
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.