Dictatorships and the Virus

The coronavirus, which originated in China late last year, has begun its definite spread across the globe. Each day brings news of new infections, and new countries in which symptoms of the virus have been observed. But one surprising locus for the diffusing virus is now Iran, far from China.

Statistics kept and published by the Iranian state are unreliable. But taking its claim that twelve have died from the disease at the time of writing seriously suggests that hundreds of Iranians, if not thousands, are likely to have been infected.

This is certainly what other countries fear. Iran contains holy sites and holy cities to which, each year, many thousands travel for pilgrimage. Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Afghanistan, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE, trace their own coronavirus cases to the entry of travellers from Iran, or the return of pilgrims. Many neighbouring states have now closed their borders with Iran, or restricted flights between Iranian and their airports.

In Iran, meanwhile, the official response has been less direct. Some of those in authority – including the country’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi – have claimed the virus was not infecting many at all before being confirmed to have it themselves. Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of parliament, has quarantined himself after claiming to have the virus, and suggesting in a tweet that he does not expect to survive.

At the centre of Iran’s outbreak is the holy city of Qom, a site visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, Iranian and foreign, through whose ranks a virus could likely be further dispersed.

Reports today suggest that a number of Iranian prisons, including Evin, may contain people exhibiting symptoms the virus, prompting questions not only of how precisely it was introduced, but also whether its spread could be linked with the movement of prison officers and other agents of the state.

It is difficult to be accurate in discussing Iran’s outbreak because of the paucity of information available. The state is largely silent, except in cases of individual infections which are so public they cannot be disputed, like that of Dr Mohamad Reza Ghadir, who was involved in the medical response in Qom before himself being subject to quarantine.

Although the presence of the virus among Iran’s elites could give the impression of a society already filled with those who are ill, this is not yet the case. It is instead likely that those in power have access to air travel, which is how the virus arrived in Iran, and often deal with foreigners, some of whom may have carried the virus.

Iran’s situation is concerning, and it may well be the location for a major outbreak. This epidemic has been exacerbated by government secrecy, and possibly by state incompetence. Iran’s secrecy has risked the health of its people, and possibly the health of many across the Middle East.

Ahmad Amiri Farahani, a member of Iran’s parliament representing Qom, claimed in a speech to parliament that the infection had been present in his city, and known to authorities, for two weeks before its presence was announced. He also suggested that the state has concealed the number of deaths, which he says include more than ten each day in Qom. This assessment is naturally disputed by authorities.

The lack of information about cases, and repeated official denials, mean it is hard to determine whether the Iranian state’s underreporting is the product of deception or ineptitude.

But regardless, this trend of the state saying nothing amid a viral crisis has left the Iranian people ignorant of the presence of coronavirus in their midst, and has brought a growing number of infections not only in Iran, but also in Iraq and Lebanon.

Lebanese and Iraqis have enough reasons to distrust their governments; but for this outbreak, they and the Iranian people will have some justification in cursing the deliberate, almost guilty, silence of the Iranian state.

Why was Iran’s government so quiet about the emergence of such a difficult to ignore threat to public health? The virus cannot be concealed, and as Iran’s deputy health minister has discovered, its symptoms are sufficiently visible when displayed on TV, let alone in medical screening. If nothing else, the Iranian people were likely to notice when more people began to sicken and die during a global pandemic.

But to ask why the Iranian state does these things is to ask a naive question. Dictatorships are not honest because honesty is not their policy. They omit things they do not want their people to hear and lie because it is what they do. Deception is the modus vivendi of states like Iran.

Iran’s leaders feel they have nothing to gain from being honest.

Even when the risk posed by the virus is indisputable, its leaders cannot be expected to act in the interests of the people. If deception is possible, it is the sole route they will take.

Even when dishonesty has little chance of success, as in the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 last month, the Iranian state fought a rearguard action of falsehood to defend the lie that its air defences had not brought down the plane.

To expect the products of this system to inform and not endanger the country’s inhabitants is, it seems, to expect too much.

The character of this pandemic can’t yet be described. How far the virus will spread is yet to be seen. But it is clear already that authoritarian states react badly to dealing with disease.

Rather than typifying the decisiveness and energy some attribute to those not hampered with acting democratically, authoritarian countries instead have put their own citizens, and foreigners, at unnecessary risk in their hope of benefiting by deception.

China, where the virus began its spread, has mobilised great resources to combat the virus, but minimised and lied about its emergence for days, unquestionably putting many thousands of lives at risk.

Iran appears to have done the same, with destabilising and, in some cases, fatal results.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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