Compared to the ancient plagues, coronavirus – the description “pandemic” aside – is an infinitesimal threat to humanity. But its spread is of a speed that past generations in the Middle East would understand.
By Robert Fisk and cross-posted from Counterpunch.
When the very first coronavirus reports emerged, I had a suspicion that Iran would be a target of the world’s anger. The spread of Covid-19 to the Middle East was as inevitable as history because the Muslim pilgrim routes have always acted as a channel for pestilence. But however honest or dishonest Iran’s response to the virus has been, contemporary hatred for Shia Islam in Sunni Muslim lands and the anti-Iranian bias of the western world was going to turn poor old Persia into a plague pariah.
A virus that clearly had its origins in China is now supposedly turning Iran into a menace to us all. The New York Times announced that it was emerging “as a worldwide threat”, spreading the coronavirus “to a host of neighbouring countries”. The Jerusalem Post declared that Iran had “now set the Middle East ablaze with fears of coronavirus”. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said Washington was “deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country.”
It was inevitable, of course. After originally denying that it had shot down the Ukrainian passenger jet over Tehran on 8 January, Iran’s word was not going to be trusted when it announced its first coronavirus deaths. The holy city of Qom had itself suffered 50 fatalities, one of the country’s own MPs claimed to the horror (and denial) of the government. Of the 139 people testing positive in the country, even its health minister admitted he was a patient after dripping perspiration at a televised press conference. With 19 officially admitted deaths in a week, it did not help when an Iranian cleric announced that the very fabric of the golden-domed mosques of Qom would protect its pilgrims. This was truly medieval in its fantasy.
Iran’s neighbours piled on the grief. The Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia all pointed at Iran as the source of their own virus outbreaks – accurate enough in that the victims (even in Lebanon) appeared to have arrived from Tehran – but for a world which has for years collectively isolated and sanctioned Iran and deprived it of the very basic commodities, including medical equipment, this is surely a grotesque act of hypocrisy. The virus coincides with the great pilgrimages to Qom. Had it broken out a few months later, then the most dangerous source might have been – and could still be – this midsummer’s Haj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Coronavirus does not respect Islam.
Nor Christianity for that matter. Early records show that Muslims in the Middle East thought that Christians might be spared the Black Death when it arrived in the region. They were not…