Iran is fighting two outbreaks, only one of which is a physical health hazard. The other is a tendency, equally malignant though, to portray the country as a global threat, in a very novel way.
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The new coronavirus that has been named COVID-19 is all over the news. It was first detected in China’s Wuhan, a city of millions that has since been put under quarantine in its entirety in a major outbreak. The contagion has reached at least 29 other countries and territories, including Iran.
But a lot of negative coverage has been singularly directed at Iran. Foreign media is attempting to portray Iran’s fight against the coronavirus as wavering, even picturing the apocalypse in those attempts. The simplistic but dangerously misleading headlines "Iran Emerges as a Worldwide Threat" on The New York Times, and "Iran's government is lying its way to a coronavirus catastrophe" on The Washington Post are just two examples.
Similar content is churned out by media outlets that have not even tried in the past to seem reliable. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has personally joined the misinformation campaign. On Tuesday, he said, “The United States is deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country.” He provided no such information.
That is a very novel form of propagating a phobia of Iran. In the past, Iran has been depicted as part of “the axis of evil,” “the world’s chief state sponsor of terror,” and “a pariah state with nuclear ambitions.” Each label seems to have been blunted over time by truth. But the underlying condition, the psychological defect, that allows for that phobia to surface in the first place seems to persist.
The new manner of picturing the country is equally misbegotten. Iran has been taking aggressive measures in the face of the viral epidemic. It has set up a special taskforce, with the Iranian president personally presiding. It has closed schools and universities in at least 14 provinces, including some not known to have been affected by the virus at all. In the capital, Tehran, a sprawling city of more than 8.5 million people, subway stations and trains and passenger buses are being disinfected everyday, a stupendous task given the width of the capital’s public transportation services. On an order by the Iranian Defense Ministry, factories have gone into overdrive to mass-produce face masks and disinfectant solutions, which have been short in the last couple of days due to suddenly heightened demand.
Iran is not jousting at the windmills. It is taking on each and every confirmed infection, and suspected cases, too, are swiftly taken into quarantine.
With some caution, and while figures are likely to increase in Iran, a case could be made that an outbreak has essentially come under control. On Tuesday, a top Iranian official said explicitly that Iran will soon rein in its outbreak of the Chinese-born virus.
A number of Iran’s neighbors have meanwhile closed their common borders with the country, adding to the perception that Iran constitutes an extraordinary threat. That measure, too, is informed by a misplaced concern.
A comparison is helpful here. The number of confirmed infections in Italy is over three times that of Iran, i.e. 320 at this time. Italy is connected to other European countries by land and by sea. And passengers from Italy havetransmitted the coronavirus to other European countries, including Spain and Switzerland. And yet, no one is calling Italy a global or even a European threat or is closing its borders with it. The border closures around Iran have more to do with the enforcing countries’ own incompetence to confront the disease than with Iran’s failure to fight it.
Some Arab countries have also officially announced cases that they say they have traced to Iran. That passengers can transmit the virus from one country to another is a simple fact, but a simple-minded focus on that fact can be misleading. The respected government of each foreign national is solely responsible for the health and well-being of that national once they are outside of Iran. If they are diagnosed with the infection while in Iran, they are entitled to medical care. Iran does not condition emergency medical assistance on a person’s nationality.
Iran is not the birthplace of the virus. China is. Nor is Iran the country with the highest number of infections outside China. South Korea is. A common point of reference about Iran is its coronavirus deaths (15 at this time), commonly described as the highest outside of China. But that is a misleading description, too, because the outbreak is officially known to have just begun in Iran and its trajectory is known to no one. Perhaps the death toll will rise, but perhaps it will stay the same relative to the overall infections. In other words, in the absence of definitive statistics, and in the face of an outbreak that is still developing, no figure should be viewed with the certainty that figures are often being viewed now to project Iran as the country with the highest fatality rate, as if something is innately wrong with Iran or its system of governance. Let’s remember, too, that the disease has neither a vaccine nor a treatment as of yet.
Iran, a crossroads of the East and the West, is doing everything in its capacity to contain the disease, and it is doing so on its own. It also has extensive political and business ties with China. In fact, you are likely to see more Chinese nationals at any given time in Iran than you are likely to see people of other foreign nationalities.
As such, Iran is not due the negative coverage that it has been receiving in foreign media. Any account of the situation that turns a blind eye to the facts of Iran’s efforts so far is either purposeful misinformation or lousy journalism. And neither is reliable.
There is no denying of the fact that the situation in Iran is concerning, given the ratio of the people who have died of the virus to the people who have contracted it. But the overall figure is still very low, even compared to a country like Italy, which lies hundreds of kilometers farther from China than Iran is. And no sound assessment of the global threat from COVID-19 can afford to ignore the strict measures that Iran has taken to contain the disease, without resorting to the quarantining of entire cities. Credit should be given where it is due.
China was until recently the target of precisely the same kind of negative coverage that Iran is now. Beijing was accused of slapdash management of the outbreak and covering up the real figures. It wasn’t until after its drastic measures to confront the epidemic started to yield results that the tone of coverage shifted slowly, and unnoticeably.
As with the beginning of the outbreak in China, hostile regimes and foreign media are rushing to interpret numbers from Iran.
Whatever comes of the Iranian outbreak, it is too soon to make any broad conclusions, including, yes, taking Iran’s own official statistics to conclude — with a definitive aura — that it has mismanaged the epidemic. The outbreak is still developing, and while there is room for speculation, it is too early to doubt Iran’s efforts to contain an outbreak that is first and foremost affecting itself.
Hossein Jelveh is an independent Iranian journalist based in Tehran. He has graduated with a master’s degree from the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran.