The COVID-19 pandemic, which is by definition egalitarian in the extreme and recognizes no physical or social borders, could cause complete breakdowns in already weak public health systems in conflict areas such as Syria, Yemen and Libya.
The risks are magnified by the deliberate targeting during conflict of hospitals and other medical facilities and the mass dislocation of millions who are forced into bare-knuckle, unhygienic refugee camps with hardly any services and rampant malnutrition.
Protesters in countries like Iraq and Thailand, who demand an overhaul of the political system, and Hong Kong, where reform is the driver, have dashed government hopes that fear of contagion would take the wind out of the demonstrators’ sails.
Protesters in Iraq, which has so far reported 124 cases and 10 deaths, have refused to abandon mass public gatherings, calling instead for the virus to take its toll on the country’s leadership.
“Listen to us Corona, come and visit the thieves who stole our wealth, come and take revenge from those who stole our dreams, we only loved our homeland, but they killed us,” protesters chanted.
“The government uses coronavirus as an excuse to end the protests. They tried everything—snipers, live bullets, tear gas, abduction, and so on and on—but they failed. They are now finding another way to stop us, but they will fail again,” said Yasamin Mustafa, a teenage protester from Basra, referring to government warnings about the virus.
Similarly, students in Thailand have ignored calls by military-backed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha to end the protests because of the outbreak. The students are demanding Prayuth’s resignation and political reforms after the country’s Constitutional Court disbanded Future Forward, a popular pro-democracy party.
In Hong Kong, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s approval rating sinking to a record low of just 9.1 percent after her government faced criticism over its handling of the outbreak, protests have moved from the street to online public gatherings in support of longstanding demands for reform.
At the same time, Lam’s backers in Beijing are confronting demands for greater freedom of speech at a moment when the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping has imposed absolute media conformity.
Xi’s critics claim that greater transparency and freedom could have prevented the virus from turning China into the world’s most affected country, with economic consequences the severity of which have yet to be fully appreciated.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg’s former China bureau chief Dexter Roberts warned that the long-term fallout of the virus could be fundamental, with hundreds of millions of domestic migrant workers “still facing unprecedented virus-related disruptions in their lives and work” as incomes have dried up, aggravated by enforced quarantines and “a skewed health care system [that] relegates [them] to understaffed and underfunded clinics.”
As occurred in the wake of the SARS crisis in 2003, the government will likely benefit in the short term from middle- and upper-class support for increased political and social controls enabled by its rollout of a 21st-century Orwellian surveillance state, argued Roberts.
“The coronavirus may eventually fade as a threat, but it has exposed the deep inequities that divide Chinese into two classes. … That split remains the biggest obstacle to China’s development,” with disadvantaged migrant workers posing “the biggest threat to its economic and political future,” said Roberts.
As for Iran, the virus crisis is not the last nail in the government’s coffin, but it has significantly widened an already yawning gap in public trust ripped open by widespread corruption, repressive policies, lack of transparency, and the government’s mishandling of the downing in January of a Ukrainian airliner.
“The relationship between the government and the public is severely damaged. The government is suffering a massive loss of confidence. And this shows in critical situations like now. Due to this distrust, society ignores information given out by the government. In recent weeks, the government has too often had to correct its own statements,” said sociologist Saeed Paivandi.
Paivandi was referring to faltering efforts by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the government to persuade Iranians to observe disruptive health precautions at a time when the country is struggling to cope with the devastating economic impact of harsh U.S. sanctions that have complicated its access to medical products.
Initial government failure to confront the crisis head on by, for example, quarantining the holy city of Qom, the Iranian hub of the virus, has turned Iran into a source of the virus elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond. The extent of the health crisis at home combined with the impact of the U.S. sanctions threatens to put the Islamic Republic in the same risk category as Syria, Yemen and Libya.
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident senior associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.