As Iran braced for Covid-19 fight, how Indian Parsi community's race against time ensured aid for Yazd's critically ill

The Parsi community in India sprang into action when Sepanta Niknam, Iran’s sole Zoroastrian politician and a councillor in the city of Yazd, spread the word that people from the community were dying of the coronavirus, and there were no medicines to save them.

Shweta Desai May 19, 2020 10:05:27 IST
As Iran braced for Covid-19 fight, how Indian Parsi community's race against time ensured aid for Yazd's critically ill

Iran reported its first case of Covid-19 in late February, and by April, an Al-Jazeera report noted that “according to official figures, at least six people died every hour of the disease caused by the coronavirus”, making the country one of the epicentres of the pandemic.

Struggling to contain the coronavirus outbreak under US-imposed sanctions, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif termed the embargos “medical terrorism” for endangering Iranian patients. But amidst the gloom, Tehran received timely intervention in the form of medical assistance from an unlikely source.

In early March, members of the Zoroastrian community in India and the US responded to pleas from Iran to provide aid during the crisis, battling time constraints and political embargos.

The trigger — apart from the reports of the obstacles in Iran’s fight against the coronavirus — was a plea by Sepanta Niknam, Iran’s sole Zoroastrian politician, and a councillor in the city of Yazd. On 13 March, Niknam spread the word that people from the community were dying, and there were no medicines to save them. Dr Shernaz Cama, associate professor at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College and president of the UNESCO-funded Parzor Foundation (which studies and researches Zoroastrian heritage) immediately sprang into action.

“Our numbers are not that large and because of the virus, we were losing a lot of people every day,’’ Dr Cama told Firstpost in a recent interview. “We knew we had to act — and act fast.”

As per Iran’s 2011 census, the country has 25,271 Zoroastrians, but the minority population of pre-Islamic origin, is presently estimated to be less than 12,000, mostly living around Yazd and Tehran in poverty. Councillor Niknam tweeted that the community accounted for 30 percent of coronavirus deaths in Yazd and lost several members, including the head of the community in Shiraz Aflatoon Sohraabi.

As Iran braced for Covid19 fight how Indian Parsi communitys race against time ensured aid for Yazds critically ill

Councillor Sepanta Niknam (third from right) with the aid consignment from the Indian Parsi community | Photo by special arrangement

Among the urgently needed medical supplies were Oseltamivir (Tamiflu), Kaletra (Lopinavir), Remdesivir, Actemra vaccines, Personal Protective Equipment and ventilators, which were hard to import under the sanctions. With the coronavirus outbreak still to make its impact felt in India, Dr Cama wondered where to procure these supplies from, and more importantly, how to send them to Yazd at a time when countries around the world were closing down borders and airlines were suspending operations. Most of the medicines were unavailable for import in large quantities and were not approved by the regulatory agencies.

Undaunted, Dr Cama launched a global community campaign to coordinate the required aid, emailing other Zoroastrians, associations, organisations. Among those she reached out to were her cousin Lord Karan Bilimoria (Cobra Beer chairman), Dr Cyrus Poonawala (chairman of Poonawalla Group, which includes the Serum Institute of India), and Dr Yusuf Hamied (chairman of pharmaceutical giant Cipla). Within a day, all three had replied and offered to help, Dr Cama said.

Donations began to pour in from Russia, Singapore, US, Canada, UK and European countries. Lucknow Medical Agencies Lajpat Nagar in Delhi stepped in to source the medicine supply. Dr Poonawala sent 1,000 PPEs, two ventilators, and 3,000 masks and gloves. Dr Hamied directed his London office to source Actemra/RoActemra (Tocilizumab), an anti-inflammatory drug from the parent company Roche Switzerland, and ship it to India through cold-chain logistics.

The consignments with PPEs, medicines and Actemra were sent as humanitarian assistance through the Iranian embassy in Delhi, which arranged a special Mahan Air flight to get the supplies to Tehran. Here, the customs department cleared the consignment, except for the cold storage box containing the Actemra.

“We were first worried whether the consignment would reach at all, given the sanctions and the lockdown. But when the customs held the Actemra, it felt as though all the efforts made to get this drug to the critical patients in Yazd would be wasted if the stock didn’t reach on time,” Dr Cama recounted. Intervention from the Iranian foreign ministry helped clear the consignment, which was delivered at the Shahid Sadoughi University of Medical Sciences in Yazd after a seven-hour drive. (Embassy officials in Delhi did not comment on the story.)

The supplies had reached Iran just before India announced phase one of the lockdown on 24 March — and just in time to help critically ill patients. A Yazd-based nurse who was fighting for her life recovered, and recently met her family. And since the medicines, food and welfare kits their brethren in other parts of the world had collected and sent for their aid far exceeded the requirements of the Zoroastrians in Yazd, the supplies could be used for the benefit of those from other communities as well. “There are not enough Zoroastrians for our charity in the world. And we don’t just work for our community, but for all of humanity,” Dr Cama noted.

The Shahid Sadoughi University administers nine hospitals and over 90 clinics in Yazd province, so the ventilators and aid will be used for other patients as well. On 8 May, foreign minister Zarif thanked the Indian Parsi community for their aid, tweeting: “The Parsis of India — Zoroastrians whose ancestors long ago emigrated to India — have remained ever faithful in their love for Iran. Grateful for their #Covid19 package for Iranians.”

India's Ministry of External Affairs also sent medicines and testing kits to Iran on 15 March, as part of its medical diplomacy.

Zoroastrians from Iran, fleeing persecution from Arab rulers after the fall of the Sassanian Empire in 652 CE, first arrived on India shores in the year 963, their ships landing at Sanjan in Gujarat. A distinctive community of these Zoroastrian refugees, known as Parsis, then developed in India. Iran —  lost homeland — remains strongly etched in the memories of the Zoroastrian community scattered worldwide.

The Irani Zorostarian Anjuman in Mumbai was formed to maintain ties between the community in India and Iran. The association was active in raising funds to repair fire temples, assisting in welfare, schooling and health of impoverished Zoroastrians in Yazd, Kerman and Tehran, until the Foreign Exchange Regulation legislation in 1973 banned transfer of funds outside India without the permission of the RBI. Gaiv Irani, the association’s vice president, said the Parsi community was quick to respond to the crisis given the short window of time, but could not extend as much help as they would have liked, to all Iranians in need.

Iranian researcher Mohammad Hekmat, whose PhD dissertation is on the Parsi Zoroastrians, was approached by the community for help in getting aid across to Iran, and readily took on the role of mediator — co-ordinating with the embassy, shipping, clearance, customs and translating between Delhi and Yazd. “The Parsis come from the land of Iran, where we possess a strong sense of hamdeli — helping each other,” Hekmat told this correspondent. “And the crisis was the best time to reinforce the deep relations between Parsis and Iran.”

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