There could be fewer more powerful signs that coronavirus is a threat to the Middle East than the extraordinary decision to stop foreigners going to Saudi Arabia’s holy cities for pilgrimage. It is the sort of signal that will give pause to many, at a point when it looks like the risk of the virus spreading is greater outside China than within its borders.
For many of those preparing to travel to Saudi Arabia, the pilgrimage is a highly anticipated event planned long in advance. But this new coronavirus is rewriting the rules of what a global crisis looks like.
In China, two-thirds of flights have been grounded. Worldwide, airlines, shipping companies, and tourism industries are expected to lose billions of dollars. In Italy, nearly a dozen towns have been put on lockdown. Just this week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of “significant disruption” to life in America, despite only a handful of cases in the country. It isn’t one yet, but this novel coronavirus has all the hallmarks of being a new, global pandemic.
Against that stark background, the sudden jump in cases in the Middle East is of great concern.
Iran reported its first positive test for the disease just over a week ago. Within days, that number jumped to double figures, and then again to triple digits; it could even be much higher. There have been a handful of cases across the region, but the fear is that the total could suddenly increase, as it has elsewhere. On Tuesday this week, Italy reported 80 cases. By the following night, that number had jumped to 400.
This epidemic, then, is far from over, even as scientists around the world scramble to understand the epidemiology of the outbreak. In the Middle East, even an outbreak like this has politics behind it.
What makes the situation so dangerous in the region is that the Middle East is crisscrossed by lines of trade, faith, and war. At a moment of great instability in the region, all three could exacerbate the coronavirus crisis.
The first big unknown is Iran, currently the country outside of China with the highest death toll. The jump in cases in mere days has fueled suspicions of a cover-up on the true scale of the outbreak. It is just weeks, after all, since Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, and then lied about it for days afterward.
It hasn’t helped that one of the public faces of the government’s response, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, tested positive for coronavirus himself, a day after appearing feverish at a press conference meant to calm concerns. Other officials, including the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar and a prominent parliamentarian have also tested positive. There is speculation that other leaders of the regime may also have the virus, as the vice president attended a cabinet meeting on Thursday. In a country where many Iranians believe the elite look after themselves first, the sense that even they cannot stave off the infection is frightening.
But there is also a concern that Iran’s leaders are playing politics. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani told his cabinet there were no plans to quarantine any cities or towns. The case of Qom, a center of religious pilgrimage, is of particular concern. The member of parliament for the city, Ahmad Amirabadi-Farahani, has alleged a cover-up, saying 50 people have died of the virus in Qom alone. The city receives 20 million visitors every year – yet clerics in the holy city were this week encouraging those who were unwell to come to the city to be healed.
The Middle East cannot afford such errors. So far cases have been reported in Iraq and Lebanon, two countries with close links to Iran, and where a destabilized central government would struggle to contain an outbreak.
Both also border one of the most vulnerable populations in the world – Syria. An outbreak in the midst of the devastation of the civil war would be disastrous. The same is true of Afghanistan, which this week confirmed its first case. The potential for crisis is real.
The exact way the virus has spread so far is unknown. While trade links between China and Iran are the most likely method, yesterday brought news of a Californian who tested positive for the virus without traveling to any hotspots. What we do know is that there are closely-woven links between all countries of the region. People moving for business, family and education, religious pilgrimages, and, lately, shadowy militant groups cross the Middle East regularly.
Taken together, such close links could create a perfect storm of infection.
An infectious disease that is spreading along the routes that bind the world together has turned one of the great strengths of the Middle East – its interconnectedness – into a sudden and unexpected liability.
Faisal al-Yafai is an award-winning journalist, essayist and playwright. He has been an investigative journalist for The Guardian in London and a documentary journalist for the BBC. @FaisalAlYafaiSHOW MORE