The new pandemic known as COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that has infected over 300,000 people globally, is especially detrimental to the social, political and economic fabric of the Middle East. The spread of the virus has already isolated free trade and transnational movement and will have a very substantial effect on the global economy, but for the already frail and fractious countries in the Middle East, the damage will likely be magnified. War torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria don’t have sufficient healthcare services to handle a large-scale health crisis and the strained relations between nations including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon and Israel will only become tenser as countries continue to close their borders and become more isolated.
Shiite and Sunni Muslims have pointed fingers towards each another as to how the virus spread, which has heightened the already present sense of resentment and animosity towards one-another. Millions of Shiite pilgrims from all over the world visit shrines in Iran, Iraq and Syria where they kiss and touch one another to obtain a blessing. These shrines became a vector for the virus to spread, and pilgrims likely spread the disease upon their return home.
There are conflicting accounts as to how the disease initially spread throughout the Middle East. Iranian officials have blamed Chinese Muslim students and Chinese workers, who were building a high-speed rail line in the Iranian city of Qom. After the virus had reached the city of 1.2 million people, it quickly spread throughout the region. The pandemic has affected Iran especially badly; over 21,000 cases and more than 1,800 deaths have been confirmed.
The spread of the virus throughout the Shiite majority Iran, has antagonized Shiite Muslims throughout the Islamic world. In the Sunni majority countries of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Shiites have been marginalized heavily in recent years. The spread of the disease has amplified the stigmatization of Shiites as Saudi Arabia’s first cases were found in the predominately Shiite region of Qatif. Saudi authorities called on people who had illegally travelled to Iran to turn themselves in to Saudi authorities. Sunnis responded with threats of violence, as many took their animosity to social media, calling Shias “traitors” who deserve to be executed.
Lebanese officials have politicized the virus to undermine the influence of the Iranian backed Hezbollah, which acts as Lebanon’s most powerful political and militant group. Lebanon currently has over 1.5 million Syrian refugees, who take up a substantial amount of the country’s healthcare services. It does not have ample resources to control a deadly outbreak. In overly populated and impoverished areas such as Gaza, a pandemic could do irreversible damage.
The pandemic’s largest victim of the disease in the Middle East is Iran as the country has the third most cases next to China and Italy. It’s especially concerning when considering the nation’s questionable records regarding transparency and trust with and in the international community. According to a BBC report in late February, Iranian state-owned news programs were announcing the coronavirus could be a U.S.-manufactured “bioweapon”. The BBC went on to say that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was warning the public of, “conspiracies and fear-mongering of our enemies,” when addressing the public about world news regarding the spread of the virus.
The spread of the virus has stayed relatively contained within Iran, but it’s likely to expand throughout the Middle East. This could lead to more animosity between regional rivals over who spread the virus, and will likely divide the Muslim world even more than it already is. The pandemic is now a global crisis, but the destruction left behind will likely affect the Middle East especially hard.