International Policy Digest

Xinhua
World News /22 Mar 2020
03.22.20

Coronavirus – the Propaganda Tool.

Coronavirus is now sweeping the world, affecting the rich and poor alike. Borders are closed, lockdowns are imposed, and the death toll continues to inexorably rise.

A country I study and write about a lot – Iran – is struggling horribly to contain the pandemic. No one is entirely sure what the accurate infection picture looks like, although the latest government figures put the number of confirmed cases at 18,407. Of those, 1,284 are said to have perished, with the mortality rate now reaching a dizzying pace at one fatality every 10 minutes.

But this is just the picture being painted by the regime, which has been downplaying the scale of the crisis since the first infections hit in February. The actual total is likely to be much higher.

A grim confirmation that Tehran was understating the numbers came a few weeks ago in the form of satellite photos of newly dug mass graves, and videos on social media showing black body bags piling up in mortuaries.

The government has closed schools and universities and banned gatherings but it has so far failed to imposed lockdowns, despite the extent of the spread.

To make matter worse, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has decided that the corona crisis provides the perfect opportunity to revive its ideology and appeal. To that end, they are carrying out a systematic propaganda campaign to portray this as an ideological war, to which only they have the solutions. They have even gone so far as to peddle conspiracy theories that the virus was orchestrated by Iran’s traditional foes – the United States and Israel – as a means of undermining their integrity.

This brazen attempt at masking the regime’s incompetence reveals a sad reality – that Tehran would far rather shore up its power and ideology than prioritize the health and wellbeing of its people.

But it’s not only Iran which appears to be massaging the figures. The number of cases in Russia also appears to be far lower than would be expected of a country with close links to China and Iran. In fact, as of Thursday 19 March, the number of infections stood at a mere 147 – less than the micro-state of Luxembourg.

Here too, political considerations play a central role. Putin has an interest in portraying the outbreak as being under control at least until April when a vote to approve constitutional changes will effectively make him leader for life. In the meantime, he can point to Europe and deride its governments for mismanaging the crisis.

Ultimately, Putin may live to regret his decision not to act swiftly and decisively. For even advanced democracies where decisive measures are being taken, are visibly struggling to contain the pandemic.

Across the world, events are forcing a massive re-prioritization in both global affairs and across markets. And now the economic impacts will stampede through our national economies – coming down especially hard on the casual workforce, including freelancers like me.

Unless you’re on the coronavirus beat it will be hard to make ends meet and a lot of existing work will go down the drain. For example, I’ve invested a lot of effort in the peculiar case of the very controversial Farhad Azima and the Emirate of Ras-al-Khaimah, because I think it highlights a grey zone in our global world that doesn’t often see the light.

But for now, none of that matters. It is all hands on deck to come to grips with this insidious virus and its wide-ranging impacts on the world.

And as we seek to gain a better understanding of this collective threat, we must also call out those who are hampering international attempts at harmonious collaboration.

The decision by a handful of authoritarian states to massage figures and misrepresent the reality on the ground could have dire consequences for us all, as we battle to contain the spread of coronavirus.

When the dust settles and this virulent pandemic is finally contained, it will be incumbent on the world to deal with countries like Iran and Russia to ensure that public health information is shared widely and transparently.

The world cannot afford a repeat of COVID-19.