As the Lebanese begin to fear the spread of coronavirus coming from Iran, Lebanon’s Health Minister finally announced a halt to “transportation by air, land, and sea for all persons arriving from countries that witness an outbreak of the coronavirus, with the exception of flights that exclusively carry Lebanese citizens and residents of Lebanon." He listed China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran as the countries currently affected by the ban.
Not only did this decision come late – as Iranian planes have already been landing in Lebanon, bringing confirmed cases of coronavirus with them – but it did not really convey the truth. On the same day that the minister announced the ban, local media reported that a group coming from Iran crossed into Lebanon via the Lebanese-Syrian border. Meanwhile, the Lebanese embassy in Tehran asked Lebanese nationals residing in Iran to return to Lebanon, recommending they book specific flights on March 2 and March 4.
It is not surprising that the Lebanese government is making inaccurate announcements. This is a government that was entirely designed and vetted by Lebanese Hezbollah and will not make decisions that harm the interests of the organization or its Iranian backers. However, the government still had to make assurances – although deceptive – to calm fears in Lebanon, where people are now seriously worried after the health ministry said on Sunday three more people had tested positive for coronavirus after arriving from Iran, bringing the total in the country to 10.
Many of those concerned are Hezbollah’s own community within the Shia population in Lebanon, who are more exposed to the virus coming straight to them from Iran. In addition to Hezbollah’s failure to fight corruption, implement reforms, or form a government that can save Lebanon, now the “Party of God” is utterly embarrassed as the deadly virus comes from Iran, the only place that was supposed to be the savior of Lebanon – not its deathtrap.
Hezbollah is still trying to handle the potential risk coming from Iran, but the repercussions might be more critical than expected. In addition to the reported cases, Syrian sources told local media that many fighters in Iran’s militias fighting in Syria – including Hezbollah fighters – have already been infected with the virus, and they go back to Lebanon regularly. Therefore, the Shia community will eventually realize that it not only will be more exposed to the coronavirus than the rest of the Lebanese, it will also be further isolated from other communities.
Moreover, the Lebanese in general are going to be banned from travel once the virus spreads as it is in Iran. Bahrain has already suspended flights to and from Iraq and Lebanon, and many other countries in the region and the world will follow. In the midst of the ongoing financial crisis in Lebanon, this is the last thing the Lebanese need. Again, fingers will be pointed at Hezbollah and Iran.
Lebanon is apparently unprepared for a large-scale coronavirus outbreak. Asked whether Lebanon could deal with a widespread local transmission of the virus, World Health Organization representative for Lebanon Dr. Iman Shankiti told The Daily Star, “If we have a huge number, no ... with current supplies and capacities it will be difficult.” She added that Hariri University Hospital is able to accommodate 128 mild cases and around 11 severe cases.
Hezbollah seems to be stuck between the Shia community’s fears and potential rage on the one hand, and its relations with the Iranian regime on the other. If Hezbollah halts all travel to and from Iran, and eventually the countries where the Iranian regime’s armies are spread – Syria, Iraq and Yemen – the organization will be isolated from its life source and the core of its strength. But if it doesn’t, Hezbollah will have to face unprecedented outrage from the Lebanese people in general and the Shia community in particular, with discontent already simmering because of the ongoing financial crisis.
With no means to control this situation, Iran and Hezbollah are – probably for the first time – incapable of creating a strategy to giving assurances to the people. This is a virus that has spread universally. It is not a conspiracy by the West. It is not a weapon created by the US or Israel to kill the Iranian and Lebanese people. In fact, it started in China, Iran and Hezbollah’s ally.
Iran is starting to look bad. Not only has it stopped sending money to Lebanon, but it is now sending a deadly virus instead. Hezbollah has barely recovered from the nationwide protests that shook it to its core. It is going to be much more difficult to come back from this crisis once the virus takes hold locally.