Using disease as a weapon: From the plague to COVID-19

Using disease as a weapon, from the Plague to COVID-19

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US President Donald Trump have both floated conspiracy theories related to COVID-19, namely, that China developed the virus as some sort of weapon.  While this is not the case, as the virus appears to have evolved naturally, this understanding misses the bigger picture as well.

Although COVID-19 may not itself be a biological weapon, it certainly is a cudgel for those in power. From taking advantage of the virus itself to using it as an excuse for repression, we are already seeing governments capitalize on this crisis. However, this is not surprising.

Disease and plague have often been used as weapons of war and repression throughout history.

The real pioneers in the field of disease exploitation have been the settler-colonialists of the Americas, and the Zionists. These histories have propelled them into the modern age, where both the United States and Israel are making grim usage of the coronavirus.  

The Golden Horde and the British Empire: A Brief History of Disease Warfare

The Mongols provide one of the earliest accounts of power using a naturally occurring disease to its advantage.

In 1345, the Golden Horde under Janibeg Khan besieged the Genoese trading city of Caffa, in the Crimea. In order to take the city, the Mongols launched the corpses of those who had died of the Black Plague over the city walls, infecting the population and rendering the city vulnerable.

However, given the amount of intercontinental trade, most historians now agree that while horrific, this incident was not the primary cause of the Black Plague’s devastation in Europe.

Disease also played a key role in the settler-colonialist project in the Americas. Spanish forces under Hernán Cortés, invading the continent in 1519, were only able to conquer the Aztec Empire once their population had been thoroughly decimated by smallpox.

While the Spanish took advantage of smallpox, it was the British who truly learned to use the disease for their own ends. Lord Jeffery Amherst, commanding general for British forces in North America during the French and Indian War (1754-63) and for whom towns are still named in Massachusetts and New York, pioneered the tactic of giving blankets coated with smallpox to the indigenous people of the continent.  

He did this because the so-called “Spaniard’s Method” of genocide (using dogs to hunt down Native Americans) was no longer feasible due to a lack of dogs.

Lord Jeff openly discussed his plans to infect wide swaths of the native populace, and was met with little resistance from his own officers.  He pondered, in numerous letters to his various subordinates, whether biowarfare might be the solution to the siege of Fort Pitt. 

“Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”

– Lord Jeffery Amherst, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada, 1886

In the Middle East, it was the students of the British Empire (the Zionist colonials) who first used disease as a tool against the indigenous people. The Zionists, like the Mongols before them, used disease against a besieged city during the Nakba –the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Al-Nakba and Bioterrorism

While the city of Acre was designated as part of an Arab state in the UN’s 1947 partition plan, Zionist forces still converged on the city in May of 1948 despite the city allegedly being under the protection of the British General Stockwell.

Although the walls of Acre were impressive, the city was supplied with water by an aqueduct leading to the nearby village of Kabri, outside those walls.

This gave the Zionists a terrifying opportunity. Thanks to recently released documents from the International Committee of the Red Cross, we now know that the massive typhoid epidemic which finally gave victory to the Zionists was in fact started artificially, fed into the very aqueduct that quenched the city’s thirst.  

This research, sourced above and also in Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, reveals that the outbreak was not caused by unhygienic conditions, but was in fact carried into the city. Once the city fell, the Zionists made short work of the inhabitants:

“Trucks carrying loudspeakers proclaimed, ‘Surrender or commit suicide. We will destroy you to the last man.’ That was not a figure of speech. Palumbo, in The Palestinian Catastrophe, notes the ‘typical’ case of Mohamed Fayez Soufi. Soufi with friends went to get food from their homes in a new Acre suburb. They were caught by Zionist soldiers and forced at gun point to drink cyanide. Soufi faked swallowing the poison. The others were not so lucky, they died in half an hour.”

– Salman Abu Sitta, Traces of Poison, 2003

The attack on Acre cannot be viewed as an isolated event. Rather, like in America, the usage of disease was a conscious tactic. Barely two weeks later, Zionists agents again tried to poison the water supplies of large refugee camps in Gaza. They were captured in the attempt.

A cable describing the attempt was sent from the Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine to Cairo: “They carried with them water bottles divided in the middle. The top part has potable water and the bottom part has a liquid contaminated with typhoid and dysentery, equipped with a rear opening from which the liquid can be released. They confessed they were members of a 20-strong team sent from Rehovot for the same purpose.”

COVID-19: Modern Sieges

These tactics have not come to a stop. In fact, both the Israeli and American governments are mirroring their earlier histories. These tactics have merely changed, adapting themselves for the modern era. The two nations are currently making use of COVID-19 in siege settings.

Just this week the Israelis demolished a coronavirus testing center in the Palestinian city of Hebron. Israeli authorities claim the building was constructed without a permit, although they had watched construction go on for nearly two full months.

As the Israelis crack down on the West Bank, the situation in the already besieged Gaza Strip continues to deteriorate.

“Gaza has been cut off and slowly suffocating for decades, with access and support denied to its impoverished population. The international community had a duty to recognise the risks that COVID-19 would pose to such a densely-packed population but instead, with a few exceptions, left them exposed and under-resourced,” explains Chris McIvor, Regional Director of HelpAge International Eurasia and Middle East Regional Office.  

While the virus has not yet devastated the Gaza Strip, the siege-like restrictions imposed by Israel are certainly taking their toll.

At least 73 people have died in Gaza, not from coronavirus, but due to a lack of health care.

Oxygen and tanks are at an all time low.  Even in terms of health issues unrelated to COVID-19, patients cannot reach Egypt or the West Bank for heart surgery or dialysis since the Israelis shuttered the borders.  

One of the incredibly perverse aspects of this dynamic is that while Gaza suffers without proper medical supplies, Gazan factories export masks to Israel, producing 50,000 masks for Israeli use each day.

Again, this is reminiscent of British colonial tactics. As the potato famine raged in Ireland (another natural disease wiping out the potato crop of the island) the British continuously exported grain and other foodstuffs from Ireland to England. When disease strikes, the powerful ensure it is the poor and dispossessed who feel its effects most keenly.

Iranian workers set up a makeshift hospital inside the Iran Mall, northwest of Tehran, on March 21. (AFP/Getty Images)

The US Government has far more reach than their Israeli supplicants, and thus the series of COVID-based sieges it is currently enforcing is even more striking. A new round of sanctions targeted at the Syrian government have wreaked havoc on the Syrian and Lebanese economies –and some have argued, aim to starve Lebanon and Syria.    

COVID-19 is also being put to morbid use in one of the longest running sieges in history, the US siege of Iran.

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Shah who was put on the throne by the CIA, the US has maintained a series of sanctions against the Iranian government. These sanctions have blocked Iran from conducting international finance, prevented them from importing goods, and even froze billions of dollars in Iranian assets abroad.  

Now, under the Trump Administration, the sanctions against Iran are more brutal than ever (following their easing under former President Obama) despite calls for the US to suspend sanctions in the face of this public health crisis.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani fears that 35 million Iranians may become infected by the virus, with the current official count at nearly 300,000 infected, and almost 15,000 dead.  

The Trump Administration claims that its sanctions are not impeding the fight against COVID-19, as certain medical items are exempt from the sanctions. However, on the ground, this appears not to be the case.

Even these items require special licenses to import, and as the US tightens its noose around the country, it slashed the number of licenses granted to Iran. These items can include oxygen generators, respirators, and thermal imaging equipment. 

Using disease as a weapon: From the plague to COVID-19
Iranian workers set up a makeshift hospital inside the Iran Mall, northwest of Tehran, on March 21. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Mayor of Tehran, Pirouz Hanachi, pled his case in the Guardian: “As a result, the ability of my colleagues and I to provide the health, logistical and other essential infrastructure necessary to combat the disease has been drastically reduced. We experience this loss every day, and it can be counted in people that would not have died.”

Never Waste a Good Crisis

Naomi Klein describes the sort of advantages pandemics can bring to those in power in her book The Shock Doctrine. The shock doctrine is “a political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else.”  

Both the American and Israeli governments are sure to not waste this crisis.

Israel has gone further than most in using the virus to clamp down on dissent. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed all the courts in the country only a few days before he was supposed to appear himself to answer corruption charges, and has shut down the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) as they attempted to elect a new chair.

In terms of deepening inequality, the United States has truly set itself apart. While checks to citizens during the pandemic pale in comparison to those given out by other nations, Donald Trump has a very specific type of bailout in mind.

His bailout largely favors his good friends in the fossil fuel industry. The administration is considering doling out tens of millions of dollars specifically to shale oil companies, which poison groundwater by engaging in the hydraulic fracturing technique that blasts chemicals underground at a high velocity.

Fracking has long been politically contentious in the United States, but with all eyes on the virus, it seems the Trump administration has the perfect opportunity to enrich their campaign donors and pass an unpopular measure.

Surveilling a Virus

The United States and Israel are also both using the COVID-19 Pandemic to massively expand their surveillance states under the guise of “public health.”

The Israeli secret police, the Shin Bet, (known for torturing children) has been massively empowered during the pandemic. Netanyahu unveiled a wide-sweeping program intended to track the cell phone of anyone infected with COVID-19. The Shin Bet is only accountable to the Prime Minister, raising concerns over invasions of privacy. 

It is difficult to imagine this degree of intrusion being rolled back, even in the event where COVID-19 is dealt with. 

The actual method the Shin Bet is using, long deployed against the Palestinians, relies on a classified database ominously known only as “The Tool.” 

The usually pro-Israel Brookings Institute describes the depth of information The Tool gathers:

“The Tool collects data from cellular providers and phone companies in Israel with regard to every person who uses telecom services in Israel. This includes data about the location of the device, the cell and antenna zone to which it is connected, every voice call and text message sent or received by the cellular device, and internet browsing history.”

This information, when gathered about a COVID-positive patient, uses phone numbers and location to identify anyone who has been within two meters of the patient. How will the Shin Bet next use this technology? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the occupation of Palestine can offer a dark guess.  

Even the ironically named “Israel Democracy Institute” expressed concern over the degree of surveillance in their infographic:

Using disease as a weapon: From the plague to COVID-19

Not one to be left behind, the United States is developing its own programs of mass surveillance in the wake of the pandemic. Oddly, it was left out of the infographic above.

Rather than leave the task to intelligence agencies, like in the Israeli case, the Americans are using tech billionaires to enforce surveillance, as reported by The Intercept in a shocking article.  

A Permanent State of Emergency

Whether tech moguls or state apparatuses, the coronavirus has certainly proved invaluable to those in positions of power. These measures, of siege, repression, and surveillance, are always presented as temporary. Once the threat passes, everything will return to normal.

From the Patriot Act following 9/11, or Israel’s “state of emergency” which has persisted since its founding, extreme measures do not naturally dissipate over time. 

There is no reason to think that this situation will change anytime soon, especially with follow-up waves of COVID-19 well on the way.  The rationales for these measures will continue as long as the virus does, and the advancements in repressive tactics will persist far after.

See also: Lebanon 2020: No dollars, food, or electricity