Visions of regime change in China and Iran due to Covid-19 represent a strain of Western callousness.

The year 2020 began with Iranians witnessing the downing of a civilian airliner and their country emerging as the epicentre of an epidemic.

As Iranians in the Islamic Republic and Iranians around the world commemorate Persian New Year, it is a solemn occasion for them, including my family as our first relative there passed away from Covid-19. 

Despite these twin traumas, there was an American callousness to the Others’ suffering, particularly in the early phases when Covid-19 was only an epidemic in China and Iran and had not evolved into a pandemic. 

When it began, it was metaphorically “Asian virus,” then “Middle Eastern virus,” and it continues to be regarded as a “Chinese virus” by America’s president. 

During these initial phases, there were projections of how China and Iran’s public health catastrophes would bring down the Communist Party or the Islamic Republic, a geopolitical schadenfreude of sorts. 

In both cases, the resilience of both China and Iran was underestimated, as was the virus itself, which went on to infect the US. 

The vilification of China as “the Sick Man of Asia”

One of the first salvos of American schadenfreude was launched in mid-February from the Wall Street Journal, with a piece entitled, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” written by Walter Russell Mead, who writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for the paper. 

The headline was criticised for its insensitivity, and the editors of the paper issued a justification: “Most Americans, however, understand the phrase in the context of the dying Ottoman Empire as ‘the sick man of Europe.’ That was our historical analogy.”

If one were to read between the lines, the editors were asking that no offence be taken, because they really meant to offend in the past tense. Nonetheless, the sick man reference to the Ottoman Empire was a term invoked by European powers on the eve of World War I to carve up, exploit, and stoke nationalist tensions within the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Arabian peninsula.

At the same time, European powers had pounced on the “sick” Ottoman Empire, they were doing the same to the Qing Empire of China, exploiting it in the mid-19th century to force the sale of British opium on the Chinese population, or carving it up in zones of influence in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion around the turn of the twentieth century. 

Regime change fantasies 

One might argue what the harm in a headline with an insensitive historical reference is? The problem, according to one Princeton academic, is that there is a “cottage industry of Western experts” who assumed that the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party would occur as the coronavirus catastrophe would serve as China’s version of Chernobyl, the nuclear meltdown that contributed to the decline of the USSR. 

Just as claims about the “brittle nature” of the Communist Party reflected wishful thinking, so too do similar projections about the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Such claims can be found in Robert D. Kaplan’s Wall Street Journal article “Coronavirus and the Tragedy of Iran,” which writes, “The Islamic Republic has missed out on global prosperity and is now in its decadent, late-Soviet stage.”

In two cases, The Wall Street Journal reveals itself as a cheerleader for regime change of China and Iran.

A similar vein is found in Graeme Wood’s article, “Coronavirus Could Break Iranian Society,” published in The Atlantic, describes the epicentre of the outbreak, the shrine city of Qom, as “a Shiite Disneyland.” 

In the article he criticised Mohammad Saeedi, the head of the Fatima Masumeh shrine who allegedly opposed a quarantine, “but begged people to visit the shrine, calling it a ‘place of healing.’” Wood writes, “At some point, incompetence and evil become indistinguishable.”

Yet Wood takes Saeedi comments out of context. The tweet reads as follows - Seyyed Mohammad Saeedi, the representative of Khamenei in #Qom: the epicenter of #cronavirus, "We call this holy shrine (#cronavirus epicenter) Daralshafa, means people come and heal from mental & physical illnesses so they must be open😐😐#irancoronavirus pic.twitter.com/VoJoVHv5ez.

But if one were to listen to Saeedi’s entire statement, he said: “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases… but of course, we also exercise caution and comply with health and safety procedures.” 

Neglecting to mention the last line is a significant omission. The suggestion is that the cleric prioritised faith over science, neglecting the fact that the shrine has been sterilised just as other countries, including the US, seek to sterilise its mass transportation system. 

From Saeedi’s single statement Wood generalises that it reflects the Islamic Republic’s frailty: “Urging visits to Qom, I fear, is the reaction of a government that has at last recognised its own limitations and has, at some level, embraced the virus.”

The problem with articles like this is it focuses the fault of the Covid-19 outbreak on Iran’s government while neglecting how sanctions imposed by the Trump administration that targeted humanitarian trade with Iran would have a greater impact on the Islamic Republic’s ability to deal with the outbreak than a shrine remaining open. 

The sick man of North America

The projection of regime change in China and Iran were written at a time when the virus seemed at a safe distance from American shores. A month later, entire American states, ranging from California to Illinois, would be shut down. New York City has become America’s Qom and the US has surpassed the number of total cases in Iran and is on track to catch up to China.

Just as writers sought to analyse how the virus reflected the failure of public health governance in China and Iran, the outbreak in the US revealed the inadequate measures Trump administration took to prepare, eliminating pandemic experts from his staff, and failing to heed intelligence warnings in January 2020 about the virus’ potential impact, and finally the lack of testing equipment and ventilators. 

While it was hoped that the virus might have resulted in regime change in China and Iran, it might result in one in the US via the ballot box in November 2020. 

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