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Economic sanctions are commercial and financial penalties used by countries to restrict trade or transactions with specific entities of foreign nations. Although often viewed as a diplomatic, non-violent alternative to war, sanctions vary widely in breadth and scope. The impacts of targeted sanctions on individuals and specific entities can differ significantly from those of broad ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions that target entire sectors of an economy. 


Recent ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions imposed by the United States on countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea have been described by the U.S. administration as ‘maximum pressure.’ These sanctions include humanitarian exemptions to allow for the sale of humanitarian necessities, such as foods, medicines, and medical supplies. However, largely due to the threat of secondary sanctions, these humanitarian exemptions often prove to be ineffective. 


Major reports by economists and human rights organizations have called attention to the catastrophic impact these sanctions have on the lives of patients. In North Korea, documented shortages of medications and essential humanitarian supplies have been recorded, with an estimated 4,000 deaths in a single year attributed to sanction related delays in supplies and funding. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, as many as 40,000 deaths have been attributed to sanctions. In Iran, a Human Rights Watch report highlighted shortages of medications ranging from antiepileptics to chemotherapies as a direct consequence of sanctions. 

As future physicians who are taking the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” it is imperative that we speak out and oppose sanctions that lack effective humanitarian exemptions and threaten patients’ right to health.


©2020 Zabed Hasnanin Chowdhury/Sipa USA via AP Images


Contact your Senators and Representatives in Congress to join the growing voices - including Dianne Feinstein, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar - and ask them to oppose economic sanctions that threaten patients’ right to health. There are various advocacy efforts around easing sanctions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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