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Iranian opacity increases coronavirus threat in region

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last week convened an emergency meeting of ministers of health to coordinate their response to the novel coronavirus, in cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has been working around the clock to deal with this global emergency. GCC worries were further heightened this week, when several people arriving from Iran were diagnosed with the disease, in addition to those previously diagnosed who had traveled from China.


On Sunday, finance officials from the G20 discussed in Riyadh how to limit the economic impact of the pandemic on the international economy, which is already weakened following months of trade disputes. The G20 ministers of finance and central bank governors were especially concerned about the growing fallout from the spread of the disease, as the International Monetary Fund predicted it would reduce global growth by a tenth of 1 percent during 2020. 


In addition to the rapidly growing human toll that the virus has exacted, China and its neighbors have borne the brunt of its economic spillovers, with reduced economic activity and curtailed tourism. The economic repercussions of the disease have come on top of a significant slowdown triggered by the China-US trade war.


In sum, health authorities everywhere are trying to deal with the rapid spread of the disease, while economists try to mitigate its economic costs. 


However, for Iran and its regional allies, the disease has become a political issue. False rumors, most likely originating elsewhere, have found a receptive audience. One conspiracy theory cited widely in the pro-Iranian media suggests that the virus was produced deliberately by the US to weaken China in its confrontation with Washington. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed media “manipulation” of the disease for the low turnout — the lowest in decades — in the parliamentary elections held last week.


Iranian officials at first denied the presence of the disease in the country, but then released drips of contradictory information when they could not keep it secret any longer. Having lost credibility after it mishandled the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner in January, Iran’s statements were met with skepticism at home and abroad. For example, at one point it was officially announced that there had been eight fatalities out of a total of 43 cases — meaning a mortality rate of about 19 percent, compared to China’s rate of less than 3 percent and Japan’s 1 percent. This high mortality rate in Iran indicates either a sharp deterioration in health services or the extreme under-reporting of cases.


While the virus was first seen in the city of Qom, it has since spread elsewhere in the country, including Tehran, where a member of the city council was confirmed as suffering from the virus. Dealing with the spread of the disease as a political embarrassment rather than a public health issue, Tehran is delaying taking the steps required to stop its spread among its population and to neighboring countries, which require greater transparency about its prevalence in Iran.


Many people visit Iran from abroad during the religious occasions that it hosts or organizes, including in Qom, where infections were first diagnosed. Some of these visitors have returned home carrying the virus. During the coming weeks and months, Iran will host more such religious festivals, providing more possibilities for spreading the disease.


Many countries have either banned travel to or from Iran or stopped direct flights. They have imposed tests on arrival for those who have traveled to Iran and enforced quarantines when needed. However, Iran’s allies in neighboring countries have resisted such measures or applied them half-heartedly. In Lebanon, for example, the Hezbollah-dominated government has applied only limited measures following the diagnosis of the virus in a traveler returning from Iran. It dismissed the risks Lebanon faces with its active contacts with Iran. For example, health officials failed to test travelers coming from Iran even after one of them was diagnosed with an active infection, and dismissed calls for the quarantine of those travelers or for stopping direct flights to Iranian cities other than Qom.

 

With such lax approaches to controlling the spread of the disease, the risk of its further spread in the region is quite serious. Festivals and the gathering of large crowds are quite common, requiring vigilance against spreading the infection and quick action once it does spread in a particular location.


The danger is especially acute in countries with weak health systems, such as Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, all of which have extensive contacts with Iran. If the disease spreads to any of these, their health facilities would not be able to cope.


For these reasons, transparency is rule No. 1. Iran and its regional allies should be open about any and all cases. As China found out, with transparency comes international aid and expertise to help contain the disease, because it is an international challenge. If we fail, there will be untold consequences throughout the region and beyond.

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