COLUMN-Amid virus outbreak, disinformation and international strains: Peter Apps

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - As the coronavirus outbreak ravaged Iran on March 5, the new commander of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced that the country was “engaged in a biological battle”. The virus, Hossein Salami told the semi-official ISNA news agency, “might be the product of an American biological (attack) which spread first in China and then in the rest of the world”.

As travel bans and national quarantines have spread around the world faster than anyone thought possible, so have sometimes disingenuous and outright deceitful stories. On Friday, the U.S. government summoned China’s ambassador to Washington to complain about statements made the previous day by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, suggesting a U.S. Army team may have brought the disease to Wuhan as part of a military games contest.

Those comments appeared part of a broader Chinese strategy to suggest the virus emerged outside China, as well as to denigrate the West’s own domestic response. With Beijing now saying China’s own outbreak has been largely controlled, China is also stepping up its own highly public offers of support to the rest of the world. The front page of China’s government-run English-language Global Times this weekend was highly critical of the responses in the United States, Britain and Sweden in particular, and China has now imposed its own quarantines on new arrivals from abroad.

While China’s moves appear largely aimed at its own domestic audience, Russia too is clearly stepping up its own efforts to shape the international narrative. The European Union’s counter-disinformation service, EU Disinfo, says Russian-linked social media feeds have been pushing false information for several weeks, including rumours that figures such as the Pope and Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan were infected. The most-read story on Russia Today this weekend featured the dramatic scaling back of the upcoming U.S.-led “Defender 2020” NATO military drills in Europe, mocking the United States for being unwilling to risk infection to demonstrate its commitment to the continent.


Against the backdrop of wider international alarm over the virus, how important these efforts at shaping the international message truly are is a very open question. The outbreak has seen considerable quantities of rumour and dubious information circulating on the Internet, the majority perhaps naturally occurring rather than created by nation states or other organised forces. Conventional news stories and government statements are themselves spreading alarm without any outside help.

The reality, of course, is that the international response to the virus so far has been very, very fractured between countries. The last few days have seen individual governments largely taking matters into their own hands, whether to close borders and put countries into lockdown or take much less stringent steps. That’s inevitably prompted blizzards of social media and conventional media commentary in countries such as the UK that are seen as taking a less aggressive approach than others, even as officials take to the airwaves to clarify and explain their actions.

Western disunity has clearly brought opportunities for other actors. After Italian officials in particular criticised the European Union for a lack of support, China last week announced its first aid flight of masks, medical equipment and a handful of medical personnel to Italy. One of China’s richest men, the founder of the Alibaba retail chain, went further, pledging the personal donation of a million facemasks and 500,000 virus test kits to the United States.


Behind such offers, of course, sits an awkward reality. At least for now, China and South Korea in particular appear to have managed to control their outbreaks of the virus, primarily through testing and containment. Europe and the United States, in contrast, have been struggling particularly with testing, facing outbreaks that for now appear more serious than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Iran.

The severity of that outbreak, of course – which has killed officials as well as many others – makes its blaming of the United State hardly surprising. What is less clear is whether the virus will prompt Iran to reduce or increase tensions with Washington, and to what extent competing power structures in Tehran favour the same approach. The disease itself is clearly causing considerable disruption in the country, including last week killing a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander who had taken credit for encouraging Yemeni Houthi rebels to attack Saudi oil tankers.

The much greater question, however, is to what extent world governments can pull their act together over the coming weeks to deliver a greater display of unity. Within the European Union, there are already early signs of that taking place. The European Commission this weekend announced it was taking charge of efforts to boost manufacture of protective gear and its export beyond the bloc. World leaders are also expected to hold a conference call, while the scale of the unfolding financial crisis may also pull countries together, as seen with coordinated global central bank action to calm market fears.

Alternatively, the opposite may happen. This weekend saw German media reporting a spat between Washington and Berlin over attempts by U.S. President Donald Trump to persuade a German vaccine firm to relocate and prioritise any vaccine treatment for U.S. use. Expect the West’s adversaries to use such stories to bolster their advantage. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)