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70% Of Budget Committed To Tackling COVID-19 In Limbo

Iran -- Iranians, some wearing protective gear amid the COVID-19 pandemic, shop at the Tajrish Bazaar market in the capital Tehran on July 14, 2020. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

About six months after the allocation of one billion euros (about $1.2 billion) from Iran's National Development Fund (NDF) to fight COVID-19, the country's Minister of Health has complained that he had only received a "small share" of it.

Meanwhile, an official from the Plan and Budget Organization (PBO) has said that "the National Development Fund's hard currency is not available."

The Minister of Health, Saeed Namaki, previously noted, "I wondered for what purpose more important than fighting coronavirus the NDF currency has been left aside?"

However, referring to the new wave of coronavirus in the fall, the delay in meeting the health sector's demands, and decreasing supplies at the ministry's warehouses, Namaki revealed that only 27% of the allocated budget had been received, so far.

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)-linked Fars news agency cited a senior official of PBO, who responded "Due to the monetary consequences of changing euros into rials, the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) has some reservations about the issue, and is against granting hard currency to fight the novel coronavirus. Therefore, the NDF currency is not available."

The allocation of one billion euros to fight coronavirus dates back to April 6, when it was announced that Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had agreed to the government's emergency request to withdraw the amount from the National Development Fund to fight the deadly virus.

Meanwhile, according to the Ministry of Health's official statistics, following the days of mourning in Muharram and the opening of schools, the number of people infected with the coronavirus and its victims in Iran has increased dramatically. Now, most provinces are under the red alert, and some, including Isfahan in central Iran, are on the verge of a crisis.

Deputy Minister of Health, Iraj Haririchi, reiterated in a TV program that only about 30% of the allocated budget of one billion euros had been paid to the Ministry of Health. He also complained about the lack of funds to pay doctors' and nurses' salaries and benefits.

"The doctors and nurses' patience is not boundless," he warned.

While the Ministry of Health officials continue to publicize their criticism, they do not seem willing to refer to other responses from responsible authorities.

"The other party has given us a response, but I cannot mention it. Those who have blocked the allocated budget must be held accountable," Haririchi said in an interview with other media outlets.

On Thursday, Fars News Agency quoted an unnamed PBO senior official saying that the reason for the delay in payment was the inflationary effects of converting the euro into rials. "Anyhow, the currency of the National Development Fund is not available," he insisted.

This is a critical issue because at the time the forex budget was allocated to fighting the deadly virus, the rial's value was much higher than today.

The Governor of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), Abdul Nasser Hemmati, has also stated that to control the inflation, the CBI "has no choice but to resist even the demands that may be necessary for their part."

At the same time, with the hashtag "fight against corruption," a member of parliament, Ahmad Amirabadi, tweeted on Wednesday, "Majlis will investigate the one billion-euro credit line and its expenditure for fighting coronavirus."

This is not the first time that corruption and secrecy in the allocation of foreign exchange budgets to the health sector have been alleged.

In 2019, Namaki announced the withdrawal of $1.3 billion in foreign exchange for procuring medicine and medical equipment. Referring to "corruption networks," he said, "it is not clear who took $1.3 billion out of the country and what brought in."

In July 2019, citing a letter from Mahmoud Vaezi, President Hassan Rouhani's chief of staff, the pro-reform daily Sharq reported that $1 billion for the import of medicine and essential goods had gone "missing."

The letter stated that ten companies importing drugs, as well as ten companies importing essential goods, had not brought in part of the products. They were all paid dollars in discounted governmental rates.

Following the revelation, Namaki announced the arrest of several employees of his ministry for their role in violating the rules and regulations of importing medicine and medical equipment.

"Some importers received two million Euros in government currency for importing heart stents. Instead, they imported power cables and fled the country," Namaki disclosed.

No official report has so far been released on the result of the probes into such cases.