Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Contagious Coronavirus: Fear and Hope

Roland Clarke

At the time of writing (8 March 2020) the Coronavirus has spread to 103 countries. The global death toll is estimated at 3,600 and experts in infectious diseases such as Timothy Sly believe, “We are very likely heading toward the pandemic of the century.” (Source) Fear is spreading around the world faster than coronavirus and recently discovered mutations of the virus are reinforcing people's anxiety.

What hope is there if no solution is found?

Experts urge that we must continue taking steps to reduce the likelihood of transmission. Also we must work harder than ever “to mitigate its impact [especially] through treatment.” (Source)

Across the world scientists are working to produce a remedy and a preventive vaccine. But estimates vary widely as to how long this may take. Of course, we all hope a cure will soon be found, but in our eagerness to find a solution, let's not deceive ourselves. We need to take seriously what has happened in China and Iran, the two epicentres of the pandemic.

Did China and Iran suppress the truth?

Initially their leaders denied the problem and tried to cover it up. Gordon Chang, a senior fellow at Gatestone Institute, noted that President Xi Jinping "allowed the coronavirus to spread for six weeks in December and January before he publicly acknowledged the disease." Likewise, Carl Gershman wrote, “the communist regime in China has handled the spreading coronavirus epidemic” by trying to suppress and cover up the truth. He noted, “Eight doctors in the city of Wuhan were punished in December for raising the alarm about the virus, including Li Wenliang, the 33-year-old ophthalmologist at the city’s central hospital who was forced to sign a statement apologizing for doing so, as it constituted 'illegal behavior.' Mr. Li became a national hero, but then became a martyr as well, with his death on Feb. 7 triggering an outpouring of rage and grief online over the regime’s lying and concealment.” (Source)

This cover up has had disastrous consequences. The Guardian reports the findings of a study done at the University of Southampton, “But if the interventions [by Chinese authorities] could have been brought in a week earlier, 66% fewer people would have been infected, the analysis found.” Furthermore, “The same measures brought in three weeks earlier could have reduced cases by 95%.” (Source) Marcus Kolga clarifies implications even more in his opinion piece in Macleans Magazine. Kolga is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre of Advancing Canadian Interests Abroad and an expert on foreign disinformation. (Source)

Iran has also experienced an unusually high death toll and it is no secret that “Iran is the epicentre of the outbreak in the Middle East as most of the cases reported in the region are either people who were in Iran or who caught the virus from people who had visited the country.” (Source)  The “official” number of Iranians infected is 5,823, but experts inside and outside of Iran believe the real number of Persians infected is very much higher.

As in China, so too in Iran, the initial spread of the virus was officially met with denial and cover up.  Dr. Afkhami noted that,

“Iran began reporting coronavirus fatalities in the city of Qom as early as February 19. Travelers from Iran to Canada and Lebanon tested positive for the virus over the next two days, signaling a much larger outbreak than Tehran was willing to admit and prompting neighboring Afghanistan, Armenia, Pakistan, and Turkey to close their borders with Iran.

Although President Hassan Rouhani dismissed the domestic concern surrounding the pandemic as unwarranted hysteria, a whistle-blowing parliamentarian from the city of Qom accused the government of covering up the crisis, claiming that 50 of his constituents had succumbed to the contagion.” (Source)

On February 24th Iran's deputy minister of health, Iraj Harirchi, emphatically denied these reports. The very next day, he was humiliated, being forced to admit that he himself was infected with coronavirus!  Over the next several days vice-president Masoumeh Ebtekar and 23 other parliamentarians have been infected which forced the government to close parliament. Furthermore, neighboring countries have closed their borders with Iran. As for Iran's economy it continues to implode largely because of international sanctions.

As these disastrous scenarios continue to unfold in China and Iran a wise saying by Solomon seems relevant, “People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)

Denial and deceit

While writing this article I read in the National Post an update on the ongoing investigation into the International Airlines flight that was downed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. The article quotes Canadian Foreign Minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, saying, “Canada has pressed Iran for a complete and independent investigation. ... Iran has so far resisted handing over the black boxes from the flight  … I always say transparency is the best antidote...” (Source)   It is no secret that Teheran initially denied having anything to do with the downing of that plane but subsequently they were forced to admit the truth.

A similar attempt to deny and cover up truth is unfolding right now regarding the enriched uranium which Iran has been stockpiling, undoubtedly for nuclear weapons. Al Jazeera reported on March 3rd that Iran has produced five times more uranium than was agreed in the nuke deal. This report notes “Teheran's refusal to answer questions about possible undeclared sites.” (Source)  Not only so, Raphael Ofek tells how an archive of documents recently smuggled out of Iran “exposes Iran's bald-faced lies” regarding Teheran's nuclear weapons project. (Source)

However, the Covid-19 pandemic is providing an even more shocking exposé of the regime's denial and cover up. A few days ago an Iranian medical Doctor, Amir A Afkhami, who also earned a PhD in psychiatry, published an article, Pandemics Ravaged Iran Long Before the Coronavirus. The subtitle implies a poignant, if powerful, rebuke against the regime, But Instead of Learning From the Past, Tehran Is Stuck There. I want to quote Afkhami at length as he brilliantly explains key reasons why Iranian authorities have allowed such a horrific tragedy to unfold.

Afkhami reported on March 3rd in Politico magazine, that Teheran's inexcusable cover up is exacerbated by their policy response. Afkhami writes,

“Since detecting the disease’s presence in Qom, the [Iranian] ministry of health has refused to establish quarantines in or around the city, wrongly characterizing the measure as outdated. The administration has failed to adequately identify, isolate, and treat people who have come in contact with the virus, and the infection has consequently spread to other parts of the country. The health ministry did request closing Qom’s religious landmarks, including the Fatima Masumeh Shrine, but religious officials refused. A surrogate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei concurred with that decision, declaring that any attempt to restrict access to the shrine promotes a nefarious plot by the United States to make the holy city appear to be unsafe.” (Source)

Almost one week before Dr. Afkhami wrote the above article, a similar critique was made by public health expert Kamiar Alaei. In an interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) he rebuked the Iranian authorities for not “admitting that they’re facing a major outbreak.” (February 26, 2020). The report continues, “CHRI has meanwhile been informed by a credible source that two doctors have died from the COVID-19 in a hospital in Tehran. But the deaths have not been officially announced and their colleagues have been warned by unidentified state agents to refrain from publicizing the news, according to the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.” (Source)

Dozens of Iranian Doctors Killed

News coming out of Iran over the last few days is demonstrating the horrific consequences of the regime's denial. For example, the Iranian news channel AVATODAY presented on 6 March a list of 65 doctors who have died from Covid-19, and it lists them according to name and city!! (Source)

Panic spreads in Iran

March 7th columnist Jason Rezaian wrote a piece in the Washington Post about Iran, titled, Iran’s response to the coronavirus is just making everything worse. He notes that key government leaders are finally admitting they face a real pandemic and are trying to restrict people's movements but “At this point, the measures are probably too little, too late.” Rezaian concludes by saying, “Many of the current problems could have been avoided. Yet, by downplaying the crisis, Iranian officials have actually managed to aggravate the public panic they wanted to avoid — and have undermined their own legitimacy in the process. People are terrified, and they have no trust in the state’s ability to manage the crisis.” (Source)

Have mercy

Having already considered the first half of Solomon's proverb it is appropriate that we now look at the second half: “if they confess and turn from them [sins], they will receive mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13, bold font added) One wonders, “What could this look like in Iran?”

Another proverbial saying is helpful, “There's a silver lining behind each storm cloud.” A pastor in Hong Kong explains what the expression, 'a silver lining' means in the midst of the current pandemic in China, “The Chinese characters for ‘crisis’ are 危機, pronounced ‘wei-ji’. The first character means danger, and the second is opportunity. Through the danger to life itself from the Covid-19 virus, the Church has an opportunity through prayer and gifts of healing to bring healing to the sick, and to preach the Gospel.” (Source)

Similarly, Iranian government leaders face an opportunity in the midst of a deadly pandemic. They can choose either to humbly accept correction and find mercy or they can harden their hearts and suffer a crushing blow. As it is written, “Blessed are those who fear to do wrong, but the stubborn are headed for serious trouble.” (Proverbs 28:14)

I believe America, as well also my own country Canada, have an opportunity to show mercy by helping the Iranian people. I would ask vice president Mike Pence who officially leads the American effort to respond to coronavirus, to consider ways that kindness can be shown to their “enemy” Iran, especially in this dire crisis. Such action would be in line with the wisdom of Solomon. As it is written, “If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” (Proverbs 25:21-22; cf. Romans 12:19-20; Matthew 5:44; Proverbs 24:17) Interestingly, Dr. Afkhami makes a similar suggestion in his article, Why Iran Is Such a Coronavirus Threat, where he proposes, “The Trump administration should consider issuing a time-limited executive order directing the Treasury Department to grant a broader waiver on banking and biotechnology exports to Iran, thus easing the transfer of bio-safety equipment, the latest diagnostic tools and needed medical devices to the Iranian health ministry. The executive order could also direct agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to work directly with their counterparts in Iran.” (Source)

It may seem extremely unlikely, humanly speaking, that Teheran would be willing to accept help from America, however, there is a precedent, as Afkhami noted in his article in 'Politico', “the National Institutes of Health has periodically obtained waivers for research in Iran over the past several decades. Engaging with Iran’s health sector will slow not only the overall global transmission of the disease but, as history shows, will also inform evidence-based policies and treatments to stop the coronavirus here in the United States. And the current administration risks very little in reaching out to help, since a refusal by the Iranians would only further discredit the leadership in Tehran.” (bold font added for emphasis)

In conclusion, I want you to think carefully: “What if America (or even Israel) providentially invented a cure or vaccine for coronavirus?” Would either one horde it for their own benefit and refuse to share it with enemies, like Iran and North Korea? Would Iran refuse to accept such help? Neither seems likely!


Endnotes

1) More evidence of Iranian regime cover up

a) Ari Lieberman (Source) cites a report (Source) from Radio Farda quoting a representative of Iran's health minister; “On March 8, Iranian authorities claimed that 194 people had died from the coronavirus. But on that day, a representative of Iran’s health minister in the northern province of Gilan stated that more than 200 people had died of coronavirus in that province alone. The number of dead in a single Iranian province exceeded the total national figure of 194 announced by the government.” (bold font added for emphasis)

b) Further evidence of concealment comes from satellite pictures of Qom showing mass graves being dug during the last week of February 2020. The National Post (Source) reprinted an article from the Washington Post explaining how, “According to expert analysis, video testimony and official statements, the graves were dug to accommodate the rising number of virus victims in Qom.” Video testimony obtained from BBC's Persia service shows multiple graves in the Behesht-e Masoumeh cemetery on February 28th. The narrator says, “More than 80 have been buried in this section so far, and they say only 34 deaths.” [official government figures] In another BBC Persia video of this cemetery taken 4 days later the narrator says, “A worker told me that they must have buried more than 250 coronavirus victims so far.” By this time the “official” death toll for the coronavirus was said to be “at least 77.”

c) On 26th February 2020 the AFP reported how the Iranian regime is “monitoring all the news published in the country’s cyberspace.” Citing the semi-official news agency ISNA, the AFP reporter noted at this early stage of the viral outbreak (barely a week after the Iranian government had started to release official figures) “police have arrested 24 people accused of online rumor-mongering about the spread of the coronavirus in the country.” (Source)

2) Muslims accept Solomon??

Readers who are not familiar with Islamic beliefs and values may wonder, “Do Muslims actually accept the teachings and sayings of Solomon/Sulaiman?” This is an important question for two reasons: this article quotes Solomon at key points and the leaders currently holding the reins of power in Iran are devout, indeed, conservative Muslims. As a matter of fact, Sulaiman is revered by all Muslims as a prophet. Indeed, he is said to be endowed by Allah with exceptional wisdom.


Further reading. An important, if unstated, principle underlying the coronavirus pandemic is people's fear of death. So let me recommend that you read the article titled, “Is death the end?” It explains how Jesus Christ abolished death and frees us from the Devil who holds the power of death enslaving us throughout our lives to the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15; 2 Timothy 1:10)

Beware: misinformation & hoaxes are stoking fear. Mike Burnard and Andrew Richards have written a very helpful article, titled The Power of Words, warning against some 66 hoaxes on social media. “There are currently over 66 different hoaxes doing the rounds on social media, that claim either insider information to the “real death rate” of the virus, predictions made in 1981 or seemingly proving facts that the virus was actually planned as a means to make money, control population growth and even as a biochemical weapon intended for warfare.” (Source)

All Bible quotations are taken from the New Living Translation.

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Two page summary handout

For anyone wishing to pass on a two page summary of this article, it is available as a pdf file, ready for printing in both letter size and A4 size.


Translations

Persian