The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has had many Arab intellectuals reflecting on the term “plague.” Many re-read the French-Algerian author Albert Camus (1913-1960) due to his dual nationality and famous novel “The Plague,” which won him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957. Similarly, some Arab intellectuals have also recalled “The Cholera,” a poem by Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007), which was one of her first ventures into free prose poetry. An elegy and lamentation, the tone of the poem conveyed scenes of mass death.
While intellectuals spend some of their lockdown time reading “plague” literature, politicians and pundits in Lebanon relapse into their sectarian instincts over the cause of the coronavirus pandemic, with Christians blaming Muslims and vice versa.
The failure to reason under the strain of the pandemic paved the way for the emergence of charlatans within the Arab world, floating bogus and sham cures, drugs, and magical recipes. These groups defy classification, a motley smattering of religious, superstitious, spiritual, and irrational, defying truth and science. These “fake doctors” and “neo-prophets” pose as saviors and prophets to safeguard the public from the ‘fires of Hell,’ while spreading misinformation on TV and social media, most predominantly on YouTube, their preferred medium.”
Although not under ideal conditions of rational discourse, the pandemic revived the old clash between the will of God versus the will of science, unfortunately giving voice to those who consider the epidemic a collective punishment, and suggesting that people could be cured by a return to faith.
Critics were politicizing COVID-19 accompanied by a rampant lack of transparency in the Arab world, which put thousands at risk. Leaders also used the virus to further political conflicts against enemies, both foreign and domestic. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, accused the U.S. of planting and designing the virus with genetic information of Iranians to target and harm them specifically. Others suggest that the virus is a political ploy by the West, a quest for power and domination of the weak.
Apart from the cultural, religious, and magical beliefs about the coronavirus, other sensible pundits reserved their harshest attacks for globalization. They pinned it as the cause of the virus's spread and even nicknamed it "the virus of globalization," blaming the rapid spread to the open movements between borders.
These same "sensible" critics have bought the claim that globalization and liberal trade are responsible for the pandemic, and thus they foreseen the imminent end of these global structures. They subsequently offer solutions, ranging from adopting a 16-18th mercantilist economic approach, or a return to the 20th and 21st-century authoritarian state-types as in the Soviet and Chinese traditions. Some go even further by anticipating a change in the world system, a transition back to the multipolar balance of power of the 18th and early 19th century.
Still, the pandemic discussion does not lack voices cautioning against “doom and gloom” scenarios. Some commentators urge prudence and advise a look back to the September 11th attacks and how the predicted demise of globalization was debunked and soon returned even more durable.
This is an edited excerpt from Elie Chalala’s “Editor’s Notebook: Irrational and Divergent Arab Voices on COVID-19: Charlatans, Medical and Political, Exploit Pandemic,” which will appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 78, 2020.
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