Will the coronavirus cough up a new reality in the Middle East?

Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the influenza epidemic, circa 1918.
Wikimedia Commons

By Faye Lax

The Spanish flu, “the flu that changed the world,” swept the planet in 1918 and killed more than 50 million people. It transformed societies. It prompted uprisings. India is a prime example. The British colonizers viewed India as inherently unhygienic and therefore invested very little into their healthcare system, resulting in the greatest loss of any country in the pandemic: 18 million dead.

Britain faced backlash and peaceful protests. Their troops, however, fired into an unarmed crowd, killing hundreds of innocent people and fueling the independence movement.

At the same time, the flu pandemic opened new opportunities for women in the United States. The deadly virus, combined with World War I, showed its worst effects in people between the ages of 20 and 40 and affected men more than women.


This created a labor shortage, a gap that had to be filled. It was filled by women. Shortly thereafter, the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic change our world and our history? The Middle East has been a large focus in U.S. national security for decades. Will this pandemic, this invisible enemy, affect the balance of power in the Middle East and the security of Israel?

Look at these recent developments caused by the coronavirus:COVID-19 kills Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Hashem Bathayi Golpeyena.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is in quarantine.

Lebanon announces a state of emergency.

Baghdad faces a weeklong curfew.

Could Iran see fundamental changes prompted by this virus?

Wariness and distrust have already been high in Iran. In January, Iran shot down a Ukrainian plane, killing 176 people. Iran denied it. Then admitted to it. The plane, they explained, was mistaken for a cruise missile. Human error. They were in the midst of
launching strikes in Iraq in retaliation for the United States killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The Iranian public, however, were not forgiving. Downing the Ukrainian plane triggered protests and a call for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to step down. They began recognizing that the regime utilized hatred towards the United States and Israel as deflection. To demonstrate this, protesters didn’t step on Israeli or U.S. flags, refusing to disrespect them.

The leadership in Iran was already lacking credibility among its people. COVID-19 might just be the last straw. The third worst COVID-19 outbreak manifested in Iran. On March 18, Iran announced 17,361 confirmed cases and a death toll of 1,135. Faith in their authoritarian regime, faith in their religious leaders, faith in the system is continuously diminishing among the Iranian public. At first, the regime understated the severity of the pandemic, convincing the population to vote in the Feb. 21 legislative election.

Shortly after, the regime took a reverse approach and began containment measures. This loss of faith is manifesting in acts of defiance such as the licking of Shrines in Qom. To counter this distrust, Iran is propagandizing that Israel and the Jews have purposely spread the virus.

The virus is also hitting the oil industry hard. Iran is OPEC’s second-largest exporter and the world’s fourth-largest oil producer. As the oil prices drop, and Iran loses its financial standing, it will lose its capability to finance terrorist organizations such as Houthi rebels, Hamas and Hezbollah. It will lose its standing as a state sponsor of terrorism. Hezbollah receives at least $100 million per year from Iran. The terrorist groups will be in serious trouble as they lose their financial backing. Without these funds, the capabilities of these groups may become limited. The virus has the potential of halting Hamas and Hezbollah’s ability to trigger any violence. COVID-19 may act as a natural force of sanctions on Iran. It may seem to be a good idea to kick the enemy when it is down, for Israel to strike Iran and Hezbollah.

Right now, however, resources should be allocated toward the pandemic. Israel confirmed more than 500 cases of coronavirus, and the Shin Bet has been given the authority to cyber-track citizens infected with the virus.

COVID-19 is not prejudiced. It is affecting people across all enemy lines. Haaretz recently referred to the halt in violence while everyone deals with the virus as a “de facto coronavirus ceasefire.” It is forcing adversaries such as Israel and the Palestinian Authority to share information and medical equipment. Even Hamas has received medical equipment from Israel, and the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, one of the highest authorities in Shi’ite Islam, declared that Iranians were permitted to use an Israeli vaccine if faced with no other substitute. Sworn enemies are now faced with a common enemy.

It is inevitable to speculate and dream about a new reality, but will the landscape really change in Iran? Will those changes be long lasting? Those are questions that can only be answered in time.

Faye Lax is pursuing a master’s degree in global security studies at Johns Hopkins University, and an AJC intern.

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