Disinformation

Infodemic: Putin’s vaccine for Mexico, fake virus strains in India and the real victims of misinformation

Welcome. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

Mexico will be among the first countries to receive Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, if it is proven to be effective. For now, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard has said that 2,000 doses of Sputnik V — heralded by President Vladimir Putin as the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine — are being sent there as part of phase three clinical trials. A number of African nations have also expressed interest in signing up. And here’s why it matters: As the race for immunization against the virus picks up, scientists and the World Health Organization are warning about the dangers of “vaccine nationalism.” The new Russian formula has faced accusations of being a “publicity stunt” rushed through with incomplete research and trials, in order to burnish Russia’s global image. This French-language opinion piece stated that Sputnik V is a “godsend for Russia,” a nation it goes on to describe as “greedy for influence.” 

It’s been a while since we’ve heard of chloroquine, but now the Chinese government is officially recommending the use of the malaria drug in new Covid-19 treatment guidelines released on Wednesday.  This is not to be confused with hydroxychloroquine, the related medication that President Donald Trump has promoted. The updated guidelines make China the first country in the world to officially endorse chloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the new guidelines are contradictory because chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are similar, and that backing one over the other simply proves that “China does not follow Western literature.” 

India is approaching three million coronavirus cases, a number that places it third in the world, behind only the US and Brazil. Now, health authorities are finding creative excuses for these figures. Officials in two states have blamed high mortality rates on nonexistent differences in Covid-19 “strains.” A health official from Odisha told a journalist earlier this month that the reason for rising numbers in a particular district was that migrant workers had brought in a “highly infectious and very virulent” variant from Gujarat. This echoed claims made by Gujarati officials in April that their state was the victim of a “virulent L-strain,” in contrast to the milder “S-strain” affecting other parts of India. The problem? According to virologists, there is only one strain of Covid-19. The designations “L-type” and “S-type” merely denote lineages by which the virus can be traced back to Wuhan, and do not indicate different levels of infectiousness.

We’ve spotted a wild theory circulating on Ukrainian social media, which suggests that the Beirut explosion was deliberately orchestrated, in order to infect large numbers of people with the coronavirus. While this idea is clearly nonsense, Lebanon is experiencing a worrying surge in infection rates and is heading into another two-week lockdown. Another lockdown is also being considered in the United Arab Emirates, where cases are surging, too. 

Numbers are also rising in Europe. As the continent prepares for a second wave, Hungary has asked its citizens not to plan vacations from September 1. This comes after the country’s foreign minister was photographed on a yacht in the Adriatic, which authorities have referred to as a “private matter.” And, as expected, the uptick in cases has already caused a growing torrent of conspiracy theories and online misinformation. Read on for more on a study that has highlighted the life-threatening dangers of Covid-19 rumors.

HOW MISINFORMATION KILLS by Mariam Kiparoidze 

In March, 50 people died and dozens were taken to hospitals in a mass poisoning in Turkey. The case received little international attention, but an investigation found that it happened because a community of migrants from Turkmenistan decided to drink pure alcohol to protect themselves against the coronavirus. 

Now, a new study has shown that this was not an isolated incident and that, since the start of the pandemic, hundreds of people have died as a result of Covid-19 misinformation. 

The study, published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, brought together an international team of doctors, social scientists and epidemiologists. They analyzed social media platforms, television networks, fact-checking and news websites, in order to review the effects of false Covid-19  information in 87 countries.

“There are hundreds of publications on Covid-19 rumors, stigma and conspiracy theories, but a few highlighted the public health impact of this infodemic.” Dr. Saiful Islam, one of the report’s authors told me. 

Its findings are staggering: 

  • A popular myth that consuming high-strength alcohol disinfects the body from coronavirus has cost 800 lives around the world
  • Nearly 6,000 have been hospitalized and 60 went completely blind from drinking methanol   
  • The study cites a case of two men in Qatar, who ingested surface disinfectant or alcohol-based hand-sanitizers after being in contact with Covid-19 patients 
  • In India, 12 people fell ill after drinking liquor made from a toxic seed named datura after reportedly watching a social media video that claimed it offered immunity against Covid-19

According to Islam, fact-checking and debunking such theories is not enough. He added that the team behind the research is calling on governments to do more to understand patterns of misinformation “so that they can develop appropriate risk communication messages.” 

Hungry for more?

Here are a few highlights from Coda’s journalists: 

That’s it from me. Gautama Mehta, Dave Stelfox and Irina Machavariani have contributed to this newsletter.  And, as always, hit reply anytime if you have tips, questions or feedback. 

I am off for the next two weeks, but Katia Patin will be back on Monday with the latest Infodemic. 

Have a great weekend. 

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

Support Coda

Natalia Antelava

Natalia Antelava is the Editor-in-Chief of Coda Story.

Get in touch via [email protected]