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Iran: responding to the impact of COVID-19

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Iran was one of the hardest hit countries by the COVID-19 pandemic in Asia. For many vulnerable families, including the millions of Afghan refugees that live in Iran, the pandemic has exacerbated the already existing challenges, as well as the economic pressure of sanctions.

With support from EU humanitarian aid, Relief International in Iran is supporting the people and Government of Iran in their battle against COVID-19, through the provision of education, health and livelihood assistance.

Life has never been without its challenges for 14-year-old Firouzeh. Ever since a medical complication at birth, Firouzeh has been living with a physical impairment.

Her parents fled poverty and insecurity in Afghanistan more than 25 years ago, seeking refuge in neighbouring Iran where they have lived as refugees since. With her father working as a daily labourer and her mother as a housewife, they live a meagre existence.

Her father wakes up every day with the hope of earning some income to be able to support his wife and only child. Exposure to vulnerability has unfortunately been a big part of Firouzeh’s family’s life.

The COVID-19 health crisis that hit Iran hard in early 2020 only added to Firouzeh’s challenges. Like millions other children, her access to education was suddenly jeopardised after schools were closed across the country.

The only way she could continue her studies was through the government-initiated distance learning initiative. This, however, required smartphones or tablets and adequate internet access, all of which cost extra money.

For families that live hand-to-mouth, it is nearly impossible to afford such resources. As a result, many children like Firouzeh have no access to proper equipment to continue their education from home.

Ensuring online learning

Some 3.2 million students across the country are not registered on the online platforms required for the distance learning initiative.

In response, Relief International in Iran with support from EU humanitarian aid has provided a tablet device which help children like Firouzeh to keep up with their studies.

The tablets give them access to ‘*Shad’*, the platform needed to make distance education possible during the pandemic lockdowns. “*I was thrilled to the core*,” said Firouzeh, recalling the day she received her tablet.

“*Every day, I send out my homework to my teacher on 'Shaad'**, where I am in constant communication with the school and peers*,” she explains. “*She now feels confident **with her classmates who have tablets of their own*,” adds Firouzeh’s mother.

To date, more than 1,000 tablets are being delivered to refugee children with disabilities across 16 provinces in Iran. Alongside the tablets, 5,000 self-learning kits, and 250 infection prevention kits for schools are being delivered to ensure continued access to education for vulnerable children.

Responding to other issues

The impact of COVID-19 in Iran goes well beyond access to education. On February 19 2020, Iran reported its first cases of COVID-19. Since then, the virus has spread quickly across the country.

“The impact of COVID-19 on Iran was particularly harsh, as the country’s economy was already under the pressure of sanctions,” said Olivier Vandecasteele, Relief International Iran’s Country Director.

He continues: “*The outbreak placed extreme burden on Iran’s health system, while also further weakening the economy. This directly impacted the socioeconomic well-being of millions of families living in Iran negatively – both the Afghan refugee population, but also the host community*.”

In response to the health crisis, Relief International, with the support from the European Union, has so far distributed some 350,000 personal protective equipment, including N-95 and surgical masks, coveralls and goggles, 60,000 diagnostic kits, 400,000 tablets of medication and about 500,000 lab material items and equipment to respond to the rising health needs.

In addition to the health and education challenges, the economic slowdown brought about by COVID-19 has made life even more difficult for already-vulnerable families, especially those relying on daily work.

Many have resorted to detrimental coping mechanisms such as reducing their daily food intake, selling assets, or suspending their children’s education.

To improve these vulnerable families’ livelihoods, close to 6,000 cash cards have been provided to allow them to sustain their day-to-day life. This cash assistance programme will help enable the affected families to cope with the economic downturn, while preserving their dignity and empowering their freedom of choice.