Disinformation

The Infodemic: Rumors in Wuhan; WHO’s troubles in Africa; the pseudo-remedy gadget that politicians love

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We are tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation and how it’s shaping the pandemic response. Let’s dive straight in.

We have been looking into rumors and fake stories surrounding the situation in Wuhan, where authorities are trying to test 11 million people. Here’s what you need to know:

  • While state media have been hailing the government’s new testing technology, there’s been a lot of skepticism about whether it will actually be possible to test 11 million people in 10 days. 
  • There are whispers of a new outbreak as authorities keep finding asymptomatic cases. When a Wuhan citizen journalist tried to visit some neighborhoods, she found they’d gone quietly into lockdown again. 
  • Meanwhile, a local official in the neighborhood of Sanmin, where a new Covid-19 cluster was found, has been sacked for his handling of the situation. 
  • Rumors and fake stories about new wet market infections and people collapsing are circulating on WeChat. Everyone seems to be on edge. 

THE BATTLE BETWEEN SCIENTISTS AND POPULIST LEADERS IS HEATING UP 

Scanning headlines from around the world, one thing is obvious: the tension between scientists and politicians is reaching a boiling point.

In the United States, President Trump is now publicly complaining about Anthony Fauci. But have a look at how the same trend is playing out elsewhere.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro is publicly criticizing his new health minister, who he hoped would be less independent than the one he fired.

  • The new health minister, Nelson Teich, urged caution in the use of chloroquine, warning of its side effects.
  • Bolsonaro publicly rebuked him and demanded that the health ministry alter its recommendations to endorse the use of the drug beginning with the first appearance of symptoms.
  • Bolsonaro has been promoting chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, a related drug, since the pandemic began. But scientific studies have yet to demonstrate their effectiveness in treating the coronavirus.

Burundi is expelling the entire WHO team responsible for coronavirus response in the country. The top WHO representative and three medical experts have to leave on Friday, May 15th. 

  • In a letter to WHO leaked to the press, Burundi’s Minister of Foreign Affairs declared the representative and three other workers as ‘personas non grata’. 
  • The reasons why are not totally clear, although local media have linked the expulsion  to the upcoming May 20th presidential election. One anonymous official also told the AFP that health minister accused WHO of “ unacceptable interference in its management of the coronavirus”
  • What’s also not clear is how the WHO staff are expected to leave Burundi. All of the country’s borders and airports are shut. 

Why this matters: According to director of the Africa Center for Disease Control John Nkengasong: “We are in dire need of technical expertise as a continent, which has a very weak health system and fragile infrastructure, where we don’t have the luxury of kicking out WHO.” 

The World Health Organization is also under attack from the president of Madagascar who has slammed it for not endorsing his herbal “remedy” for Covid-19. In an interview with French broadcasters, President Andry Rajoelina also slammed Europeans “If it weren’t Madagascar, but a European country that had discovered the remedy Covid-Organics, would there be so many doubts? I do not think so.” 

  • Over the last month Madagascar’s president launched an impressive marketing push for his untested herbal remedy, which he is now selling to several other African countries.
  • Interestingly WHO now says it will support the design of a study to look into this product and that the Director-General will meet with President Andry Rajoelina to discuss it.  

If you want to dig deeper: We’ve reported on Madagascar’s herbal remedy before and I really recommend this piece we just published together with our partners at South Africa’s The Mail & Guardian. It draws a chilling parallel between coronavirus and the 1980s outbreak of HIV in South Africa:  

At one point, cabinet minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang suggested beetroot and garlic were more effective treatments than antiretrovirals – despite all evidence to the contrary. A Harvard University study found in 2009 that this misguided policy may have caused more than 300,000 premature deaths.

History is best at reminding us that victims of fake news and fake cures have always been real. Hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq could have been prevented if not for a British-made gadget that was advertised as a foolproof bomb detector. The coronavirus crisis has brought new gadgets. 

A few weeks ago, we spotted a strange-looking device cropping up on the lapels of politicians in the Middle East and Russia. It looks like an ID badge, and was prominently worn like a talisman against Covid-19 by Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov – that is, before he was hospitalized with the disease on Wednesday.  

Isobel Cockrell has more below so keep reading.

A MYSTERIOUS AIR DOCTOR ᛫ Isobel Cockerell 

Lebanese political leaders Gebran Bassil and Nabih Berri, and Vladimir Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov are among the politicians sporting AirDoctor. 

I looked into what it actually is.

The device, which looks like an ID badge, claims to sanitize the air around you using the chemical Chlorine Dioxide, which has become a favorite pseudo-remedy in conspiracy and pseudoscience circles.

In April, the US Food and Drug Administration warned people to avoid any products containing this compound, describing it as “a powerful bleaching agent that has caused serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.”

“There are a lot of politicians wearing our products – we don’t promote them or ask them to wear it,” said Air Doctor’s Middle East spokesperson, Dr. Ali Habib, who claimed the FDA’s warning didn’t apply to them. 

“We are not a medical device or a pharmaceutical product,” he said, describing how in recent weeks they have been heavily promoting AirDoctor over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

And yet, since the beginning of the outbreak, Habib said they had sold around half a million AirDoctors, and the devices were being used in ICU units in several hospitals across the Gulf. 

I spoke to experts concerned about the product’s claims. 

Britt Hermes, a former naturopath who used to deal in pseudoscience before reforming in 2015, examined AirDoctor’s claims. 

“It screamed of naturopathy to me,” she said, adding: “As long as there’s money to be made, in these periods of insecurity we’re going to see people turning to things they have a sense of control over.”

BEFORE YOU GO

Ahead of the weekend, all I have for you is this brilliant take on our lockdown work life and one easy ask: if you like what you are reading then forward this email to a friend. 

Thank you for reading. Have a great weekend, and Coda’s Gautama Mehta will be in touch with the latest Infodemic on Monday.

Natalia 

Natalia Antelava

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

Get in touch via [email protected]

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