Stigma and cover-ups threaten global effort to contain coronavirus

Michael Stephens
Michael Stephens
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The damage caused by coronavirus seems to have unearthed the best and the worst in people. One only needs to spend 20 minutes a day on Twitter to see many examples of both.

Amid the arguments about whose graph is better, and which data proves that Country A’s approach is better than Country B’s, those who wish to look will notice a worrying trait that grows as the weeks go by – a concerted effort by governments to block information, publish inaccurate data, and even punish journalists for doing their jobs.

Outside of the most obvious example, China, the problem is particularly pronounced in parts of the Middle East. This week in Iraq, Reuters news agency had its license suspended for three months for suggesting that COVID-19 infection rates were far higher than the government was reporting. Iran also appears to have engaged in covering up the true numbers of cases in the country, punishing doctors who reveal the real extent of the problems at their hospitals to the media.

A recent New York Times report shed some light on the case of Iraq, noting that for many Iraqis, there is a social stigma attached to testing positive for COVID-19 and therefore refuse to be tested.

A secondary problem is mistrust of state institutions within many of Iraq’s close-knit communities. This problem is similar to that faced by many ultraorthodox Jewish communities in Israel. In both countries, the realities of the virus have disrupted social norms and fear of isolation from family and friends has spread, especially in cases where a fatality due to coronavirus means the community cannot properly attend burials.

The result is that governments simply have no way of ever knowing the actual level of infection in a community. Even with best efforts by their respective health care systems, these countries are unlikely to contain the spread effectively.

In the midst of a global pandemic where many technologically advanced countries are suffering casualties that seem to be spiralling upward with every passing day, it seems odd that some nations cannot come clean with their official figures. It is not like coronavirus is a unique problem that only a handful of countries are suffering from while others look on with a smug air of superiority. It is a problem that requires a global solution, and everyone has to play their part if we are all to return to any sense of normality in the near future.

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Hiding the truth, or manipulating figures so as to present any given country in a more positive light indicates that the spread of coronavirus has become a sensitive issue for many governments. Perhaps they fear their citizens will accuse them of doing a poor job, or perhaps it is simply an issue of not wanting to admit weakness in the highly insecure and competitive environment that has come to be the state of today’s global political realm. We will never know.

But let’s be clear, the costs of not being truthful far outweigh the benefits, and any country not honestly admitting the scale of the problems it faces risks repeating China’s mistakes at the beginning of this crisis, and further risks becoming a source for global spread of the virus.

Governments should realize that by refusing to face uncomfortable truths in public endangers lives. It also could lead to these states becoming the pariah that is responsible for permanent cycles of global reinfection.

If one country doesn’t do its part, the problem will arise again.

Given that most states are dealing with the coronavirus in their own way and on their own timeline, there will not be a singular moment in which all countries emerge from this pandemic free from infection. This leads to a highly problematic scenario in which some countries will become relatively open, while others remain closed. Countries will have to make difficult choices about how, and in what ways they will permit freedom of movement, and with whom they will allow international travel.

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This could be extremely embarrassing for those governments that have not told the truth and played down the severity of coronavirus. How exactly will such governments explain to their citizens that airports remain shuttered, and travel bans remain in place, while other countries displaying similar levels of infection are open for business again? China might be able to get away with it, but weaker countries will not be so lucky.

It is time the politics around coronavirus numbers stopped; there is too much at stake, and the costs are too great to fiddle statistics.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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