One Iranian Woman’s Year in the Shadow of U.S. Sanctions and Covid-19

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One Iranian Woman’s Year in the Shadow of U.S. Sanctions and Covid-19

This year has been momentous for Iran, with U.S. sanctions falling hard on the economy and the coronavirus pandemic killing more than 50,000 Iranians, among the highest Covid-19 death tolls in the world.

The double blow has especially hurt ordinary Iranians like Mahnaz Parhizkari, a 35-year-old Iranian woman living in Tehran.

Since her divorce five years ago, Ms. Parhizkari has struggled to support two sons, ages 8 and 13, on her own.

After her split from her husband, she worked as a housecleaner, a job that paid the rent on a small apartment in a high-rise building in a working-class neighborhood in Tehran.

It also allowed Ms. Parhizkari to set aside enough money to buy a used car in installments and land a job as a driver for Snapp, an Iranian ride-hailing service.

Then, in 2018, the U.S. withdrew from a 2015 agreement to contain Iran’s nuclear activity and imposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, punishment for what the Trump administration said was Iran’s aggression in the Middle East. The measures slashed the country’s exports and cut Iranian banks off from the international financial system.

“Sanctions have deprived us of little pleasures.”

“I used to take my kids to the park on weekends. But now I have to work.”

“By the end of the month, I don’t have any savings left.”

“Kids have school expenses, and we are very worried. I can’t buy very good quality bags for my sons anymore.”

“I have to economize and get something that lasts at least a year.”

The sanctions dealt a heavy blow to an economy that was already struggling, exacerbating unemployment and sending the Iranian rial into a tailspin. The currency lost 80% of its value against the dollar, pushing up inflation and hurting working-class Iranians the hardest.

“One of the fun things the children enjoyed was going to the supermarket. They could buy toys and other things. But now I cannot take them any longer. I feel very ashamed being not able to please them.”

Keeping her driving job became increasingly expensive during the course of this year, as her car required more-frequent repairs and inflation pushed up the price of spare parts.

“The car is old, a 2009 Pride. It breaks down more often now.”

More trouble came late last year when the Iranian government attempted to shore up its finances by cutting subsidies on fuel, sending gasoline prices soaring overnight. The price increase triggered nationwide protests, which security forces put down violently. Hundreds of protesters were killed in clashes that were the deadliest state crackdown in decades.

Ms. Parhizkari didn’t participate in the protests, but the price increase cut deeply into her earnings by tripling the price of a full tank of gasoline. “But trip fares didn’t triple,” she said.

“I have to start to think about another job.”

“People started taking the subway and buses more often.”

The higher gasoline prices rippled through Iran’s economy, sending the price of a range of goods soaring in turn.

“I calculate everything like on an abacus,” she says. “I write down all expenses in order to make it to the end of the month.”

“I can’t afford buying the fruit I used to buy for my kids anymore.”

Although she took an extra full-time job as a cleaner at a petrochemical company, she had to find a cheaper apartment that was cramped even for her small family.

“I cook dishes with soy products, and thankfully my kids don’t dislike them.”

When Covid-19 hit, Iran was one of the most severely affected countries in the region, with more than 3,000 cases a day by the spring, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The government encouraged people to remain home, and Ms. Parhizkari’s sons’ schools were closed. As a result, her driving income plummeted. She began looking for a new job, but to no avail.

“I am really scared of this virus, and I have two kids at home,” she says. “I can’t jeopardize their life.”

With the schools shut, Ms. Parhizkari stayed home to look after her children and oversee their schoolwork. She could drive very few hours as a result, leaving her barely able to cover her expenses.

In the summer, Ms. Parhizkari was forced to move her two children to the neighboring province of Ghazvin so they could live with her ex-husband, who she says had been addicted to drugs and largely absent during their married life. The father lives with his parents, and he has begun to give Ms. Parhizkari small amounts of money to help with the children’s expenses.

“It’s a long drive to Ghazvin, and sometimes I am so tired that I don’t go to see the kids over the weekend,” she said. “But I don’t want my children to go hungry. I couldn’t afford to keep them.”

In October, Ms. Parhizkari contracted Covid-19, possibly from her co-workers, several of whom had also gotten sick. She soon recovered, but she was left shaken.

“When I heard I had been infected, I felt dizzy,” she says. “I got very scared. The first thing that came to my mind was my sons. What’s going to happen to them if I die from the virus? I even complained to God. ‘Why me?’ With all the troubles that I have been through this year, it’s not fair. I didn’t deserve to get sick.”

Recently, Ms. Parhizkari’s income has risen again. She takes the occasional Snapp job to supplement her pay from her cleaning job at the petrochemical company.

Now, she has pinned her hopes on obtaining an apartment in a government-subsidized housing project on the outskirts of Tehran.

“It might take one year or more to get it,” she says. “Then I will be able to bring back the kids to me.”

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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