(NEW YORK) -- Eight months after Iran banned imports of any vaccines developed in the United States or the United Kingdom, the country is in the grips of its deadliest coronavirus surge yet, prompting criticism of the government for prioritizing politics over public health.
Over the past week, a daily average of 493 people died from COVID-19, according to official statistics, a deadlier toll than the country experienced even during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, during which the country was badly hit. To date, the country has recorded over 4.2 million cases of coronavirus, with 95,647 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
After a surge in April this year, the country experienced a sharp decline in cases, but since July the numbers have been headed in the wrong direction. According to Our World in Data, only 11.2% of Iranians have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, and only 3.3% have been fully vaccinated, mostly with China's Sinopharm and AstraZeneca, which have been sent as part of humanitarian aids from Japan and other countries, as well as the domestically developed COVIran Barekat, which has not been recognized by international health bodies.
In January, the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the purchase of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines made in the U.S. and U.K. Khamenei claimed that Americans wanted to "test the vaccines on other nations," without providing any evidence or reasons to back up his claim.
However, in a televised speech on Wednesday, with the country now experiencing a fifth wave coronavirus infections, Khamenei indicated a potential change in heart with the onset of the more transmissible delta variant.
"Corona vaccines must be accessible for all people from any possible way, be it domestic production or through importing," he said. "As the disease or the enemy takes on a new form, so should our defense."
Disappointed by the response of their own officials, many Iranians have criticized the government on social media. Users have posted tweets, photos and videos to document the situation in hospitals across the country, using the hashtag #SOSIran. Users ask the international community to pay attention to the situation in Iran and address the Islamic Republic officials to stop the ban on importing vaccines.
"It was an ideological approach to a health issue from the beginning," Sarvenaz, an Iranian psychiatrist whose full name cannot be published for security reasons, told ABC News. "It was a gesture to show that the Islamic Republic won't import medical products from a country it has been calling the Great Satan and its biggest enemy. But it has cost thousands of lives."
In the past, regime officials have attributed the shortage of medicines and supplies in the country to international sanctions, but now the ire of Iranians has turned to the government, with the ban on importing effective vaccines taking that excuse away.
With the delta variant of the coronavirus ravaging the country, graveyards, as well as hospitals, are struggling to deal with the surge.
In the holy city of Mashhad, the officials at city cemeteries have asked for taxi drivers to allow their cars to be used as hearses as the city has run out of enough hearses to carry dead bodies, the Islamic Republic's News Agency reported on Wednesday.
On the ground, medical professionals have warned that hospitals are struggling to deal with the surge, even as vaccination rates remain low.
Dr. Morteza Gharibi, head of the emergency unit of Iran's University of Medical Sciences in Markazi Province, told ABC News that that the hospital is running out of basic medication, and expects the death toll to climb even higher.
"Even if the vaccination gets accelerated -- which I do not think [will] happen -- it takes at least three weeks for the first shot to produce antibodies. It is already too late for that in this spike," he explained.
"I foresee an estimation of around 1,200 daily COVID death cases in about three weeks in the country," he added.