Iran, Lebanon plagued by virus, sectarianism - GulfToday

Iran, Lebanon plagued by virus, sectarianism

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab (second left) and Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian (right) arrive for a morning prayer to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday at Mohammed al-Amin Mosque in the Lebanese capital Beirut’s downtown district. Agence France-Presse

The Covid-19 shared experience of Iran and Lebanon should serve as a warning to countries which have not prepared properly for a staged reopening of popular and public lockdown and the closure of business. Both countries suffered spikes in the number of cases once they began to ease restrictions.  

Iran reported its first case on February 19th in the Shia holy city of Qom, which has close connections with Wuhan in China, where the virus emerged. Iran began to close down public venues on the 22nd, the day after the parliamentary election. Although there was record low turnout, it is assumed gatherings at polling stations provided cross-country opportunities for the virus to spread.

Tehran began to limit travel between cities on March 5th. But this was, clearly, too little too late. By the 15th, 90 per cent of regional COVID cases were in Iran. The Shia shrines in Qom, the domestic epicentre, remained open until the 16th. Cases spiked after Nawrus, the Persian new year on March 20th, because Iranians refused to stay at home and observe social distancing.

While the virus originally spread throughout Iran from Qom, Iranians and visitors to Iran carried it abroad. The list of countries infected is impressive: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, the UAE, and Lebanon; Armenia and Georgia, which had been popular with Iranian weekend visitors; Germany, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, and Spain in Europe; China in Asia, and Canada in North America. It was too late to halt the spread when travel restrictions eventually kicked in.

In mid-April when the daily tally of cases had reached its lowest level, Iran began to ease restrictions but by May 3rd, the numbers began to climb once again, eventually more than doubling from the daily average of 990.

Since then Iran has reinstated local lockdowns in hot spots.  Last week Iran’s Health Ministry reported that more than 10,000 medical workers had been infected out of 129,000 cases and 7,249 deaths, with 100,000 recoveries. These figures are contested by many Iranians and international experts who estimate that the numbers are far higher and that the government is engaged in a cover-up.

It is hardly coincidental that Lebanon reported its first case on February 21st in a woman returning home from pilgrimage on Qom.  On the 26th, a second woman who had been on Qom tested positive.  On March 15th, as 99 cases were reported, Beirut declared a medical emergency and from the 18th closed the airport, seaports and land crossings.  On the 21st, Lebanese were urged to “self curfew” and warned that a lockdown would be enforced by the security forces.  

On the 26th Lebanon imposed an overnight curfew. By the end of the month there were 446 cases and 11 deaths. On April 9th, a lockdown was extended until the end of the month when the number of cases stabilised, allowing restrictions to be partially lifted. Restaurants reopened for a limited number of customers, banks resumed serving the public, and protesters demanding food, electricity, water returned to the country’s streets and squares. On May 12th, Lebanon reimposed the lockdown and curfew as cases began to climb due to the return of thousands of Lebanese expatriates. Instead of self-quarantining, many went to familial villages and socialised. Last Thursday, 63 news cases were reported, the largest spike since the Covid-19 outbreak. Until the spike, Lebanon had earned kudos for its effective efforts to contain and treat the coronavirus.

The dire difference between the two countries is that Iran, after an initial infection from China, exported the virus to the region and the globe while Lebanon has imported its cases, first from Iran and later when Lebanese returned home from this region, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

Conditions in the two countries exhibit many similarities. Iran, a vast country of 82 million, and Lebanon, a small land of six million, not only face an invasion by Covid-19 but also suffer from sectarianism, mismanagement, corruption, poor public services, inequality and rampant unemployment. Both have seen popular protests in recent years.

Iran is a Shia sectarian autocracy, Lebanon a skewed multi-sectarian democracy. Although Iran holds elections for president, parliament and local constituencies, the ultimate authority in the country is exercised by the supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and associated clerical bodies. The system has produced the negative characteristics Iran shares with Lebanon. Lebanon is governed by a sectarian power-and-pelf-sharing agreement imposed by France before independence. According to this arrangement, the president is always a Maronite  Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, the parliamentary speaker a Shia, and seats allocated according to sect, creating a plural patronage nexus which negates democracy.

While many regional countries, including Iran, suspended communal prayers in mosques and churches early in March to prevent COVID contagion, Iran’s dominant clerics waited until mid-March, almost a month after the first case was reported in Qom to close Shia holy sites there and in Mashad. Iran’s ruling clerics draw legitimacy from these shrines.  Hard-line clerics protested.

Iranians determined to visit these shrines rioted, and attempted to break through barricades. Millions of Shias from the world over visit these shrines annually, including many who carried the virus abroad until they closed their borders.

On March 28th, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri threatened to withhold support for Premier designate Hassan Diab’s cabinet unless arrangements were made to repatriate Lebanese from all corners of the globe. A member of the triumvirate which dominates Lebanon’s political scene, Berri received the backing of Hizbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and right-wing Christian politician and former militia leader Samir Geagea. Their aim was narrowly political: to curry favour with their separate sectarian constituencies. While Diab sought to ensure returnees were tested before getting on flights to Beirut, among the thousands of Lebanese who returned from the Gulf, Africa, Europe and elsewhere were scores infected by the virus. There was no testing before they boarded and no mass quarantining when they arrived. Last week, many Lebanese called for suspension of repatriation flights when the number of cases spiralled from single digits to over 125 in a 48-hour period after a strict lockdown was reimposed.

Iranian clerics and Lebanese figures are not alone in seeking to exploit sectarianism for political gain.  The current occupant of the White House Donald Trump has called on churches, synagogues and mosques to reopen in all 50 US states in defiance of governors who prefer to wait until the virus is under greater control. Church services have already served as spreaders for COVID-19. Trump’s motive is to promote his standing with white evangelical Christians who comprise about half his base of supporters. Mainstream Protestant, black evangelical churches, the Catholic church, Jewish temples and mosques have called on congregations to have patience, watch services on the internet, and pray at home, as wise religious leaders have done in this region.

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