As Iran’s currency crisis continues, medicines are beginning to disappear from pharmacy shelves. Many Iranians – including some of our Observers – are turning to Twitter in desperation.
When they are unable to find a certain medication in their area, they publish a photo of the medicine they are looking for on social media, mostly Twitter, and ask people to retweet. They hope that someone, somewhere will have seen the medicine they need.
Since January 2018, Iran’s economy has been in an unprecedented economic crisis, with the nation’s currency plummeting in value. Despite an effort by the government to fix the rate at 4,200 tomans to the US dollar in April, the market-driven unofficial rate continued to fall, hitting a low of 12,500 tomans to the US dollar, before stabilising around 10,000. Some economists suggest Iran’s inflation is about 185 percent per annum, and unemployment is high.
Translation from Persian: "Hey guys, do you know where I can find this? It's hard to find, I need it for my knees."
"Looking for medicine is like looking for a unicorn!"
Mahnaz is an Iranian in her thirties who works at a startup. She turned to Twitter to find medicine for her friend’s two-year-old daughter.
My friend and I were looking for medicine for her two-year-old daughter. She needs it for her digestion. Over a few weeks we asked maybe 100 different pharmacies but we couldn’t find it anywhere. Her child had severe digestive problems during that time, because her mother was forced to use herbal alternative medicines while waiting to find the real drug.
We called the official helpline [Iranians can dial 1-490 to search pharmacies for medication], but they could not help us either. I was shocked. How is it even possible? Her mother used to find this medicine in any pharmacy in any corner of the city. Now suddenly it was like looking for a unicorn!
In the end, I decided to put a photo of the medicine on Twitter and asked people to retweet it. Hundreds of people retweeted my tweet and finally, after four days, someone tipped off that he had seen this medicine in Qom. He sent us the address of the pharmacy; we called and they said, ‘Yes we have it.’ We rushed to Qom – it’s 200km from where we live – and we bought two bottles of the medicine. That’s enough for two months for her child. Fortunately, the price was the same as always – 91,000 tomans [about US $9]. But we have no idea how much she’ll have to pay next time. No one knows the new prices, because apparently no one even has it in stock.
There was a nice girl in Canada who saw my tweet as well. She sent a message saying her parents will come back to Iran in two months and she’ll send some bottles with them. But after that we have no idea what we’ll do. For the time being, my friend’s child is dependent on the kindness of strangers abroad.
Translation from Persian: "I can't find my mum’s medicine, an old friend called his friend’s pharmacy but I've already asked them and they said, “We don't have the medicine”. [But they had it on stock] I bought it for 110,000 Tomans. It was 70,000 Tomans before."
Translation from Persian: "I am looking for these two medicines, can you retweet please [to help me find it]?"
Two other Observers told us they’d had difficulty in recent months buying medicines they use regularly. One person was unable to find Concor, an Iranian-made blood-pressure treatment; he managed to find a more expensive equivalent. The other person had a hard time tracking down the anti-epilepsy drug Depakine Chrono; when she did she paid twice the normal price.
Translation from Persian: "They should not sell the medicine with the mentioned price on the box? Why is everyone stealing? How can I sue them?"
Well-connected Iranians have reported having the same problem. Hossein Dehbashi, a prominent journalist who was President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 campaign director, recently used Twitter to find medicine for himself.
Although many Iranian officials suggest the financial crisis is related to US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and the impending return of US sanctions, many economists point to internal mismanagement and corruption as the main causes.
Translation from Persian: "We are looking for this medicine for a child, can you help us? Please retweet it, maybe someone will see it and help us."
Unpredictable prices and unfair import practices
Mehrdad Emadi, an Iranian economist based in London, explains why some medicines have suddenly become scarce.
It’s not just foreign-made medicines that have disappeared from pharmacies or seen skyrocketing prices – the same thing has happened to a lot of medicines made in Iran too.
There are two main reasons. Iranian companies import many of the raw materials they use to produce medicines. With the plummeting rate of the toman, producers and sellers of medicines have no idea what price to sell at. Imagine they bought raw materials for their medication when it was 10,000 tomans to the US dollar, and sold it on that basis. If the toman slides further, to 15,000, it means catastrophe: they have to buy the exact same raw materials for 1.5 times more, but they don’t have the cash.
Translation from Persian: "Can you help me where can I find these heart pills? I want them for myself and there are not many left."
The second reason is systematic corruption in Iran’s imports system. The government issues import licences to certain well-connected companies, giving them a monopoly over certain products. They then control the supply in a way that prices stay high and they profit. The other problem is that the government allows certain importers to buy dollars from the Central Bank at the official rate, which is about half the market rate, giving them an unfair advantage.