Earlier this month, a video circulated around social media showing a man licking the shrine of Ali ibn Musa Al-Reza stating that he would “eat the coronavirus” thereby ensuring that visitors of the shrine would have nothing to fear when they come during a pilgrimage. Furthermore, popular Iranian figures, such as traditional medicine physician Hossein Ravazadeh was defiant against the coronavirus outbreak telling people to live their lives normally and to continue visiting holy shrines in order to “show everybody that the coronavirus is nothing but stories”. He believed that foreign agents were “attempting” to make Iranians abandon their religious practices. Although these two men do not have any governing authorities, figures from the Iranian regime were also complacent with the outbreak. Just one day before contracting the virus, Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said that Iran would not be enforcing any quarantines as those “belonged to the stone age”. Complacency has hit Iran hard; as of the writing of this article there are 16,169 cases of coronavirus in Iran and 988 deaths as a result of the virus. While Iran was initially stringent on measures to contain the virus, it has thus far closed all schools and universities, banned officials from travelling abroad and called off sporting events. It should be noted, however, that in the run up to the global pandemic, the Iranian regime and its media outlets were propagating conspiracy theories which stated that the coronavirus may have been an engineered bioweapon made by the US. While scientists and medical experts around the world have refuted the conspiracy theory, Iran’s propaganda echo chambers still insisted that the virus was a manufactured weapon.
DISPELLING THE MYTH
First things first, it is necessary to dispel the myth that the coronavirus was artificially engineered in a lab by scientists. Not only have Iranian news outlets circulated the theory, some officials in the US also made similar outlandish claims. Republican Senator Tom Cotton claimed that Chinese scientists created the virus as a bioweapon on Fox News. One of the reasons why so many conspiracy theories have been circulating is because scientists still do not know the exact origin of the virus. The virus originated in Wuhan, China, which is known for having large wet markets. The one thing that scientists do know is that the coronavirus shows similar strains to a virus that infects bats, soon afterwards a video circulated all over social media outlets showing an Asian woman eating a bat soup allegedly in Wuhan. However, it was later discovered that the video in question wasn’t filmed in Wuhan, but rather in Palau and the woman was a Chinese influencer who was being filmed eating some of the more bizarre delicacies offered in some restaurants in Palau. Another conspiracy theory is that the virus shows strands similar to HIV, thereby implying that scientists took a strand of HIV and made a more contagious and deadly virus from it. The theory originated from an unpublished scientific manuscript by Indian scientists, which claimed that some insertions in the virus had “uncanny similarities to HIV”, but scientists quickly dismissed the findings in the paper stating that the insertions sited were so short that they could have come from a number of other different organisms. The scientists also voluntarily withdrew the paper just days later, saying that they did not have any intention of fuelling conspiracy theories.
People wear face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak after deaths and new confirmed cases revealed in Qom, Iran on March 17, 2020. (Getty)
CONSPIRACY THEORIES THAT IRAN (AND OTHER STATES) HAVE BEEN SPREADING
In this so-called “post-fact era”, it has become more widely accepted to gain your news from fringe news websites. With good reason, popular media outlets have grown unpopular with general audiences who rightly believe that these outlets harbour political biases that influence their reporting. While this has given people the opportunity to discover independent media outlets with little biases and report factual news, it has also made conspiracy theory outlets and foreign media propaganda wings more popular. As a result, international news outlets associated with foreign governments have become popular around the West and the wider world. One of said outlets is Press TV an English and French outlet that is affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran. A reportpublished by Press TV on February 4, 2020 claimed that the Wuhan virus was “likely manufactured” by the US, claiming that the American government has an alleged history of biological and chemical warfare. The report also claims that “Big Pharma” (a term used to describe American pharmaceutical companies) would be rushing a new vaccine to the markets. It should be noted that the reporter has also made the dangerous claim that some vaccines are “potentially more dangerous than diseases they’re meant to protect against”. It should also be noted, that the article also cited the paper that claimed that the virus had strains of HIV, which was later revealed to be scientifically inaccurate. The report concluded by saying that it is likely that the number of those infected with the virus will go down, rather than rise and, of course, that is something that hasn’t happened.
Not all conspiracy theories have originated from media outlets, for instance Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has claimed, without any evidence, that the coronavirus was a biological attack from the US aimed to target Iran and China.
Iran isn’t the only state that has been publishing conspiracy theories about the coronavirus; pro-Kremlin Russian news outlets have been spreading similar articles of misinformation. For example, popular news outlet RT published Salami’s claims though it did go on to say that there wasn’t evidence to support the commander’s beliefs. However, other outlets such as Topcor.ru and Katushya.org have published articles claiming that the US intentionally created the virus to sabotage the Chinese state. One claim is that the US was trying to gain an upper hand in the trade war, and therefore created this virus to disrupt an economically rising China. Another unverified claim is that the US wanted to create chaos within the Chinese state, and did so by manufacturing and spreading the coronavirus. Similar to a the Press TV report I cited earlier, many of these outlets also state that the US was “simultaneously creating both the virus and the cure” implying that American pharmaceutical companies were staging a pandemic to sell vaccines.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
The virus is still spreading as we speak and there’s no sign of it stopping. Inevitably, more and more of these stories will be spread, but it is important for people to be vigilant against fake news and always strive fact check everything when it comes to this virus. As humans, we always have this need to find the reason for phenomenon and this need is amplified when it is a phenomenon that is rapidly costing the lives of thousands of people and loved ones. However, scientists still haven’t discovered the source of the virus, and they may not ever find the exact source. For now, we need to come together as an international community to care for one another. The world has gone through many international crises in the past, and the human race has shown the tenacity to move past them. While it might seem bleak now, this too shall pass.