Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Babak Dehghanpisheh at Reuters reports that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced on Thursday that the coronavirus Covid-19 has spread to nearly all of the 31 provinces of the huge country (Iran is as big geographically as Spain, France and Germany combined, and its population rivals that of Germany at 81 million). Iran was reporting at least 90 dead and 3,000 infected on Thursday, but those numbers are widely thought to be much lower than the reality.
Several high government officials have come down with the virus, including a vice president and the deputy minister of health, and 8 percent of parliament has been sickened. Two senior officials have died, one an adviser to clerical Leader Ali Khamenei.
Iran is finally beginning to take steps to address the crisis. The government has cancelled Friday prayers this week, as occasions for large gatherings of people where the infection could spread. It is also deploying the army. The Tehran Fire Department helped disinfect the Grand Bazaar. I think avoiding going to the Grand Bazaar for a while, though, would be more efficacious.
In an excellent overview, Meghan Tobin of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post notes that some observers see Iran as the Middle East epicenter of the virus outbreak, playing the role in West Asia that China and South Korea are playing in the East.
Some of the severity of the outbreak is because of Trump administration policy, and some of it derives from the Iranian government just not being very good.
Some of the failures here come from the Iranian government initially wishing to save face. For that reason, it refused to postpone parliamentary elections, which saw a large number of fanatically pro-government hard liners elected. In that regard, as I pointed out, Donald Trump and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have a lot in common.
Trump has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the novel coronavirus. He insists on continuing to hold big political rallies, which have never been necessary for a sitting president. On Thursday he alleged a death rate of 1 percent. He may in the end be right, but at the moment the evidence shows an over 3 percent mortality rate. It isn’t that what he said is egregious, but that his reasons for saying it are ignoble. He has said that it is no more deadly than the flu (which is certainly false by orders of magnitude), and that it will be over quickly, and that some people may come to work with it (they may but they shouldn’t!) and will nevertheless get better. He is transparently driven to spread around these exaggerations in order to talk back up the markets and to make sure the public does not blame him for having tried (unsuccessfully) to cut the budget of the Centers for Disease Control, having succeeded in getting rid of the position on the National Security Council responsible for coordinating efforts to combat infectious disease, and having aggressively pushed an anti-science agenda.
If you were an evil comic book villain attempting to kill large numbers of people with a disease outbreak, you could not do a better job in putting people in harm’s way than Trump has been doing.
Exactly how deadly this Dr. Pangloss approach to an infectious disease outbreak can be is demonstrated by the case of Iran, where for weeks the ruling Shiite clerics downplayed the seriousness of the problem. Some were even encouraging people to keep going on pilgrimage to shrines of Shiite saints in places like Qom, where people typically rub or even kiss brass railing around the cenotaph to receive blessings. The pious but terminally stupid even believe that the blessings of the ancient deceased saint are so powerful that he or she will protect against the infection.
But it is not only religious beliefs that kept the government from acting. It is under “maximum pressure” from the Trump administration, which is attempting to use a financial and trade blockade to vastly weaken or even overthrow the government. Under such straitened circumstances, the government felt that it could not afford to look as though it is vulnerable.
Likewise, Iranians are living on the edge because Trump has, without a shred of legality, stopped Iranian oil exports, which had been a big part of the economy. The US government-funded site Radio Farda estimates that Iran is only exporting about 250,000 barrels a day of petroleum, a tenth of what it was exporting before Trump breached the 2015 Iran deal that the US had signed, and unilaterally imposed the severest possible blockade on Iran.
Although the Trump blockade does not prevent medical imports, it does prevent many Iranian banks from handling the orders, and the blockade has thrown many Iranians into such poverty that they cannot afford medicine and medical equipment from abroad.
Because the US Treasury Department imposes third-party sanctions on European, Indian and other firms for trading with Iran, Tehran has been forced into a tight dependency on China, the only country willing and able to at least somewhat defy Trump. That dependency meant that when the coronavirus outbreak was reported in January, Iran did not have the luxury of cutting off trade with China or travel to that country, as Ms. Tobin shows.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the health disaster in Iran, but it certainly is the case that the Trump administration bears some of the blame for all the people who will be sickened and for those who will die, because it has chosen the blunt instrument of economic blockade on civilians to deal with Iran rather than diplomacy.