By Syed Zafar Mehdi
The cataclysmic Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe, bringing daily lives to a grinding halt in much of the world. In the words of UN chief Antonio Guterres, it is the greatest challenge the world has faced since World War II.
Some countries though have been hit harder than others, not because of incoherent or disorganized response, but due to external pressures from those seeking to weaponize the pandemic.
In Iran, it has been a grueling fight under extremely challenging conditions. The country battling crippling sanctions, with assets worth billions of dollars frozen abroad, has already overcome four deadly waves of the pandemic. And the battle continues, both against the pandemic and those weaponizing it.
What is phenomenal though is how the Islamic Republic, notwithstanding heavy and seemingly insurmountable odds, has quite literally defeated the US maximum pressure campaign with maximum resistance and resilience, in a time of pandemic.
This has been made possible by the visionary leadership of Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the torchbearer of the Islamic Revolution.
The decision against importing US and UK-made vaccines, and insistence on producing an indigenous vaccine was one of his masterstrokes, which not only illustrated his unflinching faith in local scientific talent but marked a key step toward neutralizing the impact of sanctions and making the country's increasingly self-reliant.
At the peak of first and second waves last year, when Iran was one of the hardest-hit countries in the region, it was the Leader who stood like a rock behind the country's frontline health workers. He even declared those who fell in the line of duty as "martyrs".
When complaints were made about lack of adherence to health protocols in big cities, he appeared on television wearing a mask and urged others to do the same. During the month of Muharram, he was seen sitting quietly in one corner of his otherwise jampacked mosque, wearing a mask and listening to elegy reciters.
These were incredibly inspiring efforts to promote the Covid-19 guidelines and undoubtedly saved scores of lives.
When vaccines were rolled out in the West, and almost all regional countries made beelines to have them, Iran's Leader said no to the US and UK-made vaccines. Some thought of it as irrational while others knew the move was properly calculated.
This was not merely a rejection of foreign vaccines, it was a path-breaking move toward building self-sufficiency through domestic production, while encouraging local scientific talent and becoming a major vaccine hub in the region.
Also, the untold and unheard of was loud and clear: the killers cannot be your saviors.
At that time, very few would have thought that Iran will come up with a homegrown vaccine, in such a short span, under the ominous specter of economic terrorism and maximum pressure campaign. It came up with not one but four, with two of them already getting the nod for mass production.
Again, the Leader walked the talk. He took the first shot of locally-produced vaccine Cov-Iran Baraket produced by Shifa Pharmaceuticals, on the camera, in the presence of top health officials.
This was enormously significant. The country's top official, in a show of extraordinary faith and trust in his young scientists and their untapped potential, turns up his sleeve, looks straight into the camera, and calls it a "source of honor and pride".
As one Twitter user wrote, on the face of it, it appeared that the Leader was getting the vaccine, but in reality the vaccine was against the pandemic of despair and self-doubt among people. It restored people's faith in the sanctions-battered healthcare system and the country's young scientists.
In his remarks after getting the shot, the Leader said he was not willing to receive a foreign-made vaccine, so he “waited for an Iran-made vaccine”. He also lavished praise on those involved in producing the country's first licensed vaccine.
"It is very important to honor this national achievement in the true sense of the word. Why should we not use it when we have the opportunity to prevent or cure a disease inside the country," the Leader said, appreciating the efforts of all knowledge-based firms presently involved in the production of vaccines in Iran.
He also urged local vaccine developers to publish documents and other relevant scientific papers related to the vaccine for the world to benefit from, unlike those billionaires in the West who refused to share Covid-19 vaccine formulas with developing world countries, and those elites who hoarded the surplus vaccines.
Looking back at the timeline of the Covid-19 pandemic in Iran, it becomes crystal clear that the Leader was from day one sure about the capabilities of local scientists to produce a vaccine with high efficacy — from May 2020 when he called for the production of homegrown vaccine to June 2021 when he proudly said that Iran was among five or six countries to produce an indigenous vaccine, and that too under cruel economic sanctions.
What is important to note here is that the battle isn't only against the pandemic but also against hopelessness and despair it creates, especially in places where vaccines haven't reached yet. Leader's words resonate widely, and carry a message for all those people across the world fighting the pandemic and all those people fighting those weaponizing the pandemic.
We can beat both if leaders lead from the front.
Syed Zafar Mehdi is a Tehran-based journalist editor and blogger with over 10 years of experience. He has reported extensively from Kashmir, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran for leading publications worldwide.