In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani claimed that the virus had been introduced by the American "Great Satan" in order to disrupt elections for the Islamic Consultative Assembly then underway. The fable was propagated that the record low turnout of voters had been part of an American plot. Pictured: Voters and officials at a polling station on the southern outskirts of Tehran on February 21, 2020. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
Having started as a local public health issue in China, the corona epidemic has now morphed into a global economic and even political threat. It has also put the limelight on the manner with which affected nations have tried to face the challenge, revealing the true nature of various regimes.
At the time of this writing, four nations are singled out as those most affected by the pandemic: China, where it started, Iran which is second to China in numbers of cases, South Korea where the coronavirus broke out in a religious community and Italy, the Western nation most affected.
The different ways in which those nations dealt with the challenge sheds light on their respective political systems and cultural environments.
In China, the initial reflex was to brush everything under the carpet by denying the outbreak of the virus. The culture of secrecy, turned into a cult since 1949, regards information as a precious weapon that cannot be made available to the public at large. If knowledge is power, it is only natural that the revolutionary regime should have a monopoly on it. Thus, it took the central authorities in Beijing weeks before they decided to admit the existence of the epidemic and, having blamed the local authorities for negligence, seized control of the response.
Sharing the Chinese regime's penchant for secrecy, the Islamic Republic in Iran also tried to hush up things. However, the Iranian attempt was not as effective as China's and news of the outbreak was known to a majority of Iranians within weeks. The reason is that, unlike China, the Islamic Republic is a faction-ridden ramshackle Third World despotism often in only nominal control of society.
South Korea, a non-Western capitalist democracy, did not try to hush things up but was hampered by another factor: The "bleeding-heart" liberal insistence on respect for religious diversity. Because the epidemic started in a Christian fundamentalist community, the authorities in Seoul were hesitant to magnify the threat and take drastic measures such as imposing a quarantine on the congregation.
The Italian response was marred by the political divisions that have plunged it into a systemic crisis with a series of unstable governments.
It is odd that the central authorities in Rome decided to impose a quarantine on all provinces north of Rimini, that is to say precisely the regions where the so-called League, a coalition of conservative and secessionist groups and parties mainly rooted in Lombardy, has its support base.
What seems suspicious is that the drastic measures that Rome imposed on regions where its opponents are strong were not adopted, even in a light version, for the country as a whole. As a result, more than a million people fled the forbidden zone to relocate in central and southern regions of the peninsula.
Worse, still there was no control on those who fled abroad, including the Italian globe-trotter who took the coronavirus to the Maldives islands thousands of miles away.
Italy was not the only country where partisan considerations were put above concern for public safety. In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani claimed that the virus had been introduced by the American "Great Satan" in order to disrupt elections for the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) then underway. The fable was propagated that the record low turnout of voters had been part of an American plot. Iran also shared South Korea's reluctance to put public safety above religious sensibilities. The coronavirus had come to Iran via the "holy" city of Qom where dozens of Chinese theological students had just returned from New Year holidays back home.
The logical step would have been to quarantine the city and impose a ban on pilgrimages for the duration of the crisis. But that would have meant abandoning the myth that the "holy" shrine cures all ailments, makes the blind see and the lame run in marathons.
In the end, however, the authorities were forced not only to stop pilgrimages but also to ban Friday prayers across the country. Within days, the mullahs' logomachy urging staying away from holy places and mosques reached a crescendo of tedium. By that time, however, Iran had secured second place, after China, in number of deaths from the coronavirus.
In Britain, the public-schoolboy style of politics, a mixture of braggadocio and sang-froid, introduced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meant weeks of contradictory signals. While the government was emitting reassuring noises, people were emptying the shelves in supermarkets in panic buying. If the Chinese felt that the all-powerful party would make sure that all would end well while Iranians were told that a metaphysical agent would protect the believers, the British, forgetting the Blitz spirit, were building stocks of baked beans, toilet tissue
s and hand-wash gels.
In the United States, facing the prospect of an economic downturn that could rob him of his biggest claim to success, President Donald Trump tried to set a reassuring tone. His Democratic opponents, however, tried to over-dramatize the situation as much as possible. The imposition of state of emergency in New York and the saga of the wayward cruiser in California were used by Democrats to turn the coronavirus episode into what Robert Reich, former Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton, into "Trump's Katrina", after the 2005 hurricane that damaged the Republican Party's chance in the subsequent presidential election.
The coronavirus pandemic comes at a time when the very concept of globalization is challenged from both left and right. While the current trend in many countries is away from globalist parties to nationalist ones, the coronavirus should remind us that we live in a world in which a local event, good or bad, could quickly assume a global dimension.
Today, we have a whole toolbox of means needed to deal with economic and trade problems. The problem is that the toolbox is designed to deal with probabilities while the virus shows that the improbable, if only theoretically possible, may force itself into the global agenda. The system is based on presumed certainties while the never-mentioned reality of human existence is uncertainty.
Carl Schmidt argued that the task of the state is to deal with exceptions because the countless quotidian ordinary acts that sustain human existence are normally and routinely carried out by citizens. The coronavirus, like recent recessions, however, shows that the modern state is more geared to regulating, not say tinkering with, the ordinary than dealing with the exceptional.
In the end, maybe, there is a metaphysical entity that keeps our fragile global system going on the edge of the precipice.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.