COVID-19 will travel pre-modern pilgrimage routes and invoke post-modern conspiracy theories

COVID-19 claimed its highest-ranking victim yet in Iran, Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi, who died at a Tehran hospital of the virus, at age 71.

Along with Iran’s Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, who is quarantined after catching the virus, the newest coronavirus has had an outsized impact on the Islamic Republic’s leadership.

With the recent cases in Iran and Italy, COVID-19 appears to be emerging as a pandemic. As it has spread in the Middle East to Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE, and Israel, the question emerges as to how well the region is prepared in terms of collective biosecurity.

The Middle East has already been hit by a previous coronavirus, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012, and past precedent should offer some answers. 

One article titled “Welcome to the Belt and Road Pandemic,” while representing Western anxieties about China’s geopolitical rise, does raise a valid question of how viruses spread due to infrastructure.  

Nonetheless, because of Western sanctions on Iran, the Islamic Republic had to depend on China for the construction of infrastructure, and Chinese labourers in the shrine city of Qom could have served as the vector of the disease. 

While the outbreak in Iran may be due to China’s greater role in the Middle East developing its modern infrastructure, it has then spread due to a pre-modern tradition: pilgrimage. 

The Middle East’s coronavirus: MERs

The coronavirus refers to a family of viruses shaped like a crown, including the “common cold,” which is so old that there is even an Egyptian hieroglyph for it. Seven coronaviruses have made the jump from animals to human, however, in the 21st century, novel coronaviruses have made a new jump into the human population from bats on the three occasions causing a deadly pandemic: SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in late 2002, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012, and 2019, COVID-19.

Bats serve as reservoirs for the world’s deadliest zoonotic viruses. The MERS coronavirus in originated from bats in Saudi Arabia, with the initial case involving a bat that infected four camels that slept in a paddock adjacent to a 60-year-old man’s house.

The answer to how the region was prepared can be answered in the toll of the disease. It was not immediately contained and went on to kill at least 858 people and sicken approximately 25,000 in 27 countries, including Saudi Arabia’s neighbours in the Gulf, such as Qatar, the UAE and reached as far as South Korea.

Nonetheless, Saudi health authorities prevented the disease from infecting millions who came to the country during the Hajj pilgrimage of 2013, which serves as an indication that while MERS was not contained within its borders, it did prevent a widespread outbreak. 

Nonetheless, the Middle East as a site of pilgrimage foreshadowed how COVID-19 spread throughout the region in 2020, forcing Saudi authorities to close off the Islamic holy sites to pilgrims.

Pre-modern pilgrimage and COVID-19

According to a John Hopkins University interactive, live update of the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been 2,336 cases and 77 deaths so far in Iran from coronavirus complications. 

Iran’s patient zero has yet to be found, but the Iranian ministry health ministry stated that virus possibly originated from Chinese labourers in Qom who had come back from China but did not provide details if “patient zero” had been found. 

A Chinese company has been constructing a solar power plant in Qom. The fact that a Chinese company was given this tender is related to China’s strengthening of ties with Iran in the face of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, with Beijing emerging as Tehran’s economic “lifeline,” comprising 25 percent of Iran’s foreign trade.

While fears of COVID-19 spreading in tandem with China’s modern geopolitical reach have been expressed, perhaps exaggerated, the virus has travelled along the Middle East’s pre-modern network of sacred heritage.

Qom is the site of the shrine of Fatima, brother of Imam Ali al Ridha, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. Lebanon’s first case of COVID-19 was from a pilgrim who visited the site, a 45-year-old woman who is in good health, according to the Lebanese ministry of health. 

The first three cases in Kuwait were allegedly from pilgrims returning from Iran’s north-eastern city of Mashhad, where Ali Al Ridha is buried. 

Iran’s neighbour Iraq, which has reported 32 cases of the virus, has suspended visas for Iranian passport holders and direct flights between the two countries. This will affect the millions of Iranians who come to Iraq to visit the Shia shrine cities there. 

As a result, the Iraqi economy, dependent on heavy pilgrimage traffic from Iran, will suffer, as well as the Iranian economy which depends on overland trade to Iraq, but also to Turkey and Afghanistan, which have also closed their borders. 

The virus has not only affected Shia pilgrimage routes. In Israel, a group of South Koreans on a nine-day pilgrimage to the country’s religious heritage also tested positive for the infection, possibly spreading it to other pilgrims who jostle nearby at the sites.

Post-modern conspiracy theories

Certain Arab media outlets, before COVID-19 spread through the region, accused the US and Israel of biological warfare against China. 

A columnist with Dubai’s Al Bayan newspaper on Twitter described the virus as a plot by Qatar to hurt the upcoming Expo 2020 world’s fair in Dubai and Saudi Arabia

The ultimate takeaway for the public in the Middle East to prepare for COVID-19 is the need to minimise hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Media literacy will become a matter of life and death in our post-modern, post-truth era.

The new coronavirus, however, is a global problem, which requires political solutions and transparency, based on international cooperation on the multinational, national and local level in the Middle East, ensuring the free flow of scientific information among these actors to the public in this region.

This is not the time for Gulf conflicts to get in the way of collective biosecurity.  

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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