Middle East Institute:

By Michael Knights

If outbreaks like the coronavirus shift from ‘black swan’ events to regular occurrences, globalization trends in the region may reverse, with sobering consequences.

As the coronavirus outbreak has spread internationally, the world’s attention has focused on China, the country where it originated. But as a Middle East watcher for the past two decades, I really got interested when it popped up in Iran, a Chinese trading partner and an equally authoritarian and deceptive regime. Financial markets and political leaders are fixated on the virus’ arrival in Europe and the United States, but what is happening in Iran, the geographic keystone that connects Asia, Eurasia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, should be just as worrying.

The challenges of combating the spread of the virus in a country that is not known for its transparency became obvious on Monday when Iran’s deputy health minister showed signs of infection at his own press conference. Just hours earlier, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani had characterized the outbreak as “a conspiracy by the enemies” of Iran. Even after acknowledging later that he had tested positive for the virus, the health minister minimized the extent of the emergency, insisting that a widely publicized death toll of 50 people in the city of Qom was inflated and that there was no need for a quarantine.

Undervaluing the impact of pandemics is not limited to Iranian government officials. It’s actually a widespread phenomenon among Middle East experts who tend to focus more on war and terrorism risks when doing their forecasts. But the spread of coronavirus to the seat of many of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations is a dramatic development with long-term consequences for the region and the world. Pandemics will soon be both commonplace and a key driver of the future of society.

One idea emerging from future-gazers—and I pay attention to novelists as well as economists, sociologists and technologists—is the idea that pandemics will roll back aspects of globalization or even bring it to a screeching halt. In Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a novel set in a futuristic Thailand, today’s globalization is a past period remembered as “the expansion.” In the face of pandemics and resource wars, global trade has collapsed into a new reality known as “the contraction.”

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