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With COVID-19 in Iran reaching Canada, expert warns outbreak will only escalate

Click to play video 'Why are so many new cases of COVID- 19 in Canada linked to travel from Iran?' Why are so many new cases of COVID- 19 in Canada linked to travel from Iran?
Several new COVID- 19 cases in Canada and right here in B.C. are linked to travel from Iran. Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi joined our Jennifer Palma on why that is and how politics may be playing a role in it.

Nearly all of Canada’s most recent COVID-19 cases have links to travel from Iran, leading some to wonder why the Middle East country has been hit so hard by the virus.

In recent weeks, Iran has emerged as a new centre for the novel coronavirus. The country on Saturday reported 54 deaths, the highest death toll outside the Chinese province of Hubei where the virus originated.

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MORE: Canadian coronavirus cases linked to Iran rise, experts question country’s response

Iranian-American commentator Negar Mortazavi said that U.S. sanctions, coupled with the regime’s apparent lack of transparency and competence, are all contributing factors — and will likely only worsen a dire situation.

Mortazavi believes politics plays an important role, adding it’s “very sad how a political fight between Tehran and Washington is negatively impacting” the possible pandemic, which does not recognize either politics or borders.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Iran raises death toll to 54 as new cases spike

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Friday that the Trump administration had made a formal offer of assistance to Iran via Switzerland, which serves as an intermediary between the two nations. It’s still not clear, however, what is being offered or if Iran will accept it.

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Mortazavi said the U.S. administration has “eased a little bit of the sanctions on Iran’s central bank to allow for humanitarian transactions.” But she added the move is “nothing compared to previous American administrations.”

Under former president George W. Bush, “American military planes and American supplies and personnel flew into Iran to deliver aid” after a devastating earthquake struck the Iranian city of Bam in 2003, Mortazavi said.

In 2012, then-president Barack Obama also temporarily suspended sanctions for several months to aid after another massive, deadly quake struck Iran.

Click to play video 'COVID-19: Pompeo says U.S. offered to help Iran with virus response, concerned about Tehran’s willingness to share information' COVID-19: Pompeo says U.S. offered to help Iran with virus response, concerned about Tehran’s willingness to share information
COVID-19: Pompeo says U.S. offered to help Iran with virus response, concerned about Tehran’s willingness to share information

Currently, there is a reported shortage of testing kits for COVID-19 that Mortazavi said is a result of U.S. sanctions, which prohibits even European countries from sending the specialized kits to Iran. That leads to potentially hundreds of cases going undetected in the country.

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“The Iranian diaspora is very large, and if the virus is spreading so quickly in Iran undetected then there’s a high chance we are going to see even more cases across the world,” said Mortazavi.

READ MORE: 3 new COVID-19 cases announced in Ontario, 2 had travel history to Iran

B.C.’s last three cases are linked to travel from Iran. The most recent case announced Saturday, a woman in her 60s, visited the province from Tehran.

The two cases announced before that involved a woman in her 30s who recently returned from Iran, and a man in his 40s who is a close contact of that woman.

In Ontario, five cases were announced within three days that all either travelled to Iran or are connected to those who travelled. Three of those cases were reported Saturday.

The very next day, four new cases were reported in the province, with three of them connected to Iran.

Click to play video 'Buses, trains sprayed with disinfectant as multiple COVID-19 cases reported in Iran' Buses, trains sprayed with disinfectant as multiple COVID-19 cases reported in Iran
Buses, trains sprayed with disinfectant as multiple COVID-19 cases reported in Iran

And on Friday, health officials in Quebec confirmed that province’s first case of COVID-19 in a woman who returned from Iran earlier that week.

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Mortazavi says she’s seen disturbing videos emerging on social media of people being turned away from hospitals in Iran, with staff claiming they don’t have the test kits to verify their symptoms and are unable to treat patients.

The hospitals “don’t have the capacity to keep them in the outpatient section because you need ventilators, machinery and equipment and health workers to run that,” said Mortazavi.

READ MORE: B.C. announces 8th case of COVID-19 in woman visiting province from Iran

In an effort to go around U.S. sanctions, Iran’s regime has established very close ties to China for economy, trade and tourism. Their relationship is more complicated than meets the eye, but Mortazavi says Iran was “reluctant to cut those ties with China in time, and that’s how people saw the virus spread from China to Iran.” Beijing openly breached U.S. economic sanctions on Iran by continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Click to play video 'COVID-19: Trump says U.S. willing to help Iran amid virus outbreak' COVID-19: Trump says U.S. willing to help Iran amid virus outbreak
COVID-19: Trump says U.S. willing to help Iran amid virus outbreak

If Iran doesn’t get the resources it needs to treat patients and contain the virus — and given the vastness of the Iranian diaspora in Canada and across the world — Mortazavi says Iran will likely continue to be the new centre of COVID-19, leading to continued transmission of it outside its borders.

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“It’s a pretty serious issue,” she said. “I’ve talked to many Iranians who are sitting at home. They’ve abandoned school, metro, shopping, and are only in close contact with friends and family waiting this out.”