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'Iran or India?': US Democrat says politics should dictate vaccine aid

Congressman Ted Lieu sparked outrage and accusations of dehumanising Iranians for suggesting they are less deserving of vaccine assistance
Iranian health worker receives the Covid-19 vaccine
An Iranian health worker receives the Covid-19 vaccine as the country launches its inoculation campaign in Tehran, 9 February (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

US Congressman Ted Lieu, a prominent California Democrat, is facing a slew of outrage over a statement stressing that Washington should prioritise its vaccine donations to allies, not foes such as Iran.

"I strongly disagree with the Biden Administration on their global vaccine rollout. We should help our allies first instead of letting a third party decide where vaccines should go," Lieu wrote to his 1.6 million followers on Twitter on Thursday.

"Since there are not enough vaccines, should we help India or Iran? We should help India first."

The post sparked an instant backlash, including accusations of perpetuating Islamophobia and dehumanising Iranians. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) circulated a petition calling on the lawmaker to retract his statement.

"Nationality is not a determination for whether or not you are worthy of a vaccine. And suggesting otherwise, as Rep. Lieu did today, only serves to dehumanize Iranians and reinforce the pressure policies that have hurt so many of our friends and family," the petition said.

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"Many of Rep. Lieu's own constituents are worried about their loved ones in Iran, who are struggling amid Covid-19, crushing sanctions, and government ineptitude. No government - be it the US, Iran, or anyone else - should stand in the way of Iranians securing a vaccine."

'No different than Trump'

Lieu, who enjoys a sizable online following partly due to his witty quips against Donald Trump, represents one of the largest Iranian-American communities in the country.

In fact, during the Trump years, he was a leading voice against the former president's immigration policies banning travellers from Iran and other Muslim-majority nations.

Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), accused Lieu of aligning with "America First" Republicans, invoking Thursday's tweet about vaccines as well as the congressman's statement on the recent crisis in Gaza.

Lieu had voiced support for Israel during the war and blamed Hamas for the death of Palestinian civilians in Israeli air strikes. He had also called the forced removal of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah a "complicated and emotionally charged legal dispute", echoing the description by the Israeli foreign ministry of the displacement campaign that Palestinians say amounts to ethnic cleansing.

"Ted Lieu's comments amount to Islamophobia, and his logic is no different than that of Donald Trump and the GOP. He has no issue with the government of India and their treatment of Muslims, and the country’s overall horrible track record on human rights," Ayoub told MEE.

"Further, his statement on Jerusalem and Gaza gave cover for Israel to continue its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Ted Lieu really needs to examine his positions, and make sure his views are more in line with the Democratic base and not the MAGA crowd."

Thousands of social media users berated Lieu for the post suggesting that Indians were more deserving of vaccines than Iranians because of the policies of their respective governments.

"Iran has endured a pandemic under crippling US sanctions designed to punish civilians," one comment said. "I don’t see how any human being could think they are unworthy of vaccine help."

US vaccine donations

The administration of President Joe Biden had pledged to donate 80 million vaccine doses by the end of June. 

Earlier this week, the White House said 75 percent of the first 25 million shots will go to Covax, a global initiative to assist less prosperous nations with vaccines. The remaining doses will be given directly to countries experiencing surges in infections and "other partners and neighbors, including Canada, Mexico, India, and the Republic of Korea".

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"We are sharing these doses not to secure favors or extract concessions," Biden said in a statement on Thursday.

"We are sharing these vaccines to save lives and to lead the world in bringing an end to the pandemic, with the power of our example and with our values."

Despite mounting pressure to at least delete the tweet on vaccine distribution, Lieu reasserted his position later on Thursday; instead, he retracted his criticism of the Biden administration.

"The US is still the decision-making authority in terms of which countries will get vaccines for the doses we give to COVAX," he wrote in a tweet, stating that he had addressed the issue with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. 

"With that understanding, I support the Biden Administration’s global vaccine rollout strategy."

Lieu's office did not respond to MEE's request for comment by the time of publication.

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