Cholera and Iran's History of Responding to Pandemics

By Sprusansky, Dale | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2020 | Go to article overview

Cholera and Iran's History of Responding to Pandemics


Sprusansky, Dale, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


As technological advances in the 19th and 20th centuries increased global trade and interaction, disease outbreaks that once remained localized quickly escalated into global pandemics.

During this period, there were seven cholera pandemics, all believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent. Iran, as a thoroughfare for international trade and a focus of British and Russian imperialistic endeavors, was hit particularly hard by these outbreaks.

Amir Afkhami, a professor of global health and history at George Washington University, and the author of A Modern Contagion: Imperialism and Public Health in Iran's Age of Cholera, outlined Iran's history of confronting cholera on April 11, 2019. His talk at Stanford University, which seemed of niche interest at the time, now appears eminently pertinent in light of the devastating toll of the new coronavirus on Iran.

The Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1789 to 1925, largely failed to effectively mitigate the impact of cholera outbreaks due to financial restraints and imperialistic intrusion, Afkhami explained.

Iran participated in international conferences on the disease and was well aware of the successful steps European powers had taken to limit the impact of outbreaks. The problem, Afkhami noted, was that many of these best practices required costly changes to public infrastructure that the financially strapped country could ill afford. "Proposals to improve the sanitary infrastructure of the country were largely ignored because of the Qajar regime's administrative crises and financial deficits," he said.

The country's financial woes, Afkhami explained, were largely a result of the burden of reparation payments to Russia in the wake of two military defeats, and an economic crisis initiated by cheap outside industrial goods flooding the Iranian market.

In light of its limited budget, Iran's management of the disease on its hinterlands was subordinated to imperial Russia and Britain, Afkhami said. Both nations, however, prioritized their own interests over the welfare of Iranians.

The British, given their sea power, managed southern quarantines, while Russia ran quarantines in the northeast where they had sufficient troops and infrastructure.

Russia, Afkhami explained, used their quarantines to divert trade from Iran into their own territories. Meanwhile, the British refused to establish sufficient quarantines because they did not want to enforce onerous restrictions that would hinder their economic activities in the Persian Gulf. "Economic, political and strategic goals took precedence over the health of the Iranian population by the great powers," Afkhami said. …

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