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After years of Covid denial, Bolsonaro decrees the pandemic finished

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how anti-science disinformation is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Tucker Carlson touts “testosterone tanning,” and Guatemala lets vaccines spoil

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After years of dismissing the severity of Covid-19, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has instructed his health minister to decree an end to the pandemic in Brazil. The government will soon lift the last emergency health measures that have been in place for the past two years. 

Rio de Janeiro will host its first carnival in two years this weekend, with a glittering parade planned, alongside a tribute to the country’s more than 660,000 Covid victims. 

Brazil’s is the third highest reported death toll of any country in the world.

A new study published last week showed that in Brazilian counties that voted in higher numbers for the pandemic-skeptic president also saw higher Covid-19 infection rates. 

“The role of politics had a critical impact on Covid-19 responses to the pandemic in Brazil from the outset,” said Dr. Carlos Starling from the Mineria Society of Infectious Diseases in Brazil, who co-authored the study, in a statement. He described how Bolsonaro has spent the pandemic denying the severity of Covid-19, promoting unproven treatments, discouraging mask use and social distancing measures, “which has likely resulted in higher infection rates and deaths from Covid-19 among his supporters.”

Brazil has spent a good part of the pandemic battling against disinformation — peddled and propagated by Bolsonaro — surrounding quack remedies, such as Trump-favorite hydroxychloroquine and far-right panacea Ivermectin

A Brazilian Senate inquiry accused the president of committing nine crimes against the Brazilian public during the pandemic, including crimes against humanity. The inquiry declared the President to be partially responsible for the Covid death toll in Brazil. 

The pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine, has furnished Bolsonaro with excuses to plunder ever larger stretches of the Amazon rainforest. Invasion of indigenous land and killing of indigenous people increased in 2020 under the cover of Covid. Earlier this month, Jill Langlois reported for Coda on how the Russian invasion led Brazil’s congress to fast-track plans to mine indigenous land for potassium. Bolsonaro claimed that while Russian exports of fertilizer have ground to a halt, opening up Brazilian indigenous land to potassium mining would solve the problem. 

But as case numbers wane, approval of Bolsonaro’s handling of Covid – which many view to be among the most disastrous in the world — has gone up. 

That said, Bolsonaro is currently projected to lose in the national elections this October. And he’s priming the ground for his loss: taking his cue from Donald Trump by criticizing the electoral system and claiming it is fraudulent. 

“It’s likely that thousands of lives have been lost unnecessarily because President Bolsonaro dismissed COVID-19 as ‘a little flu’ and rallied against lockdowns, school closures and other protective measures,” said Dr. Braulio Cauto, who also worked on the study examining support for the President in Covid-hit areas. 

But there is hope, Brazilian virology research scientist Anderson Brito told me, speaking from Sao Paulo. “I’m optimistic. Brazil has decades of success when it comes to promoting vaccination,” he said. “My hope is that this year Brazilians make wiser decisions, electing representatives that really care about their lives.”  

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS

Shanghai’s brutal lockdown continues into its fourth week, with censorship of an increasingly restive population higher than ever, and reports of entire communities being relocated to quarantine facilities more than 100 miles away. Chinese social media has been under strict censorship, with complaints about the measures deleted and blocked. But it’s proved difficult for the censors to maintain complete control, with hashtags criticizing the city’s Covid response going viral for several hours overnight — when censors are thought to be off shift — with furious comments, before being deleted en masse. Students living in university accommodation report being locked in their bedrooms, only allowed to leave to go to the bathroom, watched at all times by CCTV cameras. I’ve been speaking to a family who’ve told me about their harrowing, desperate escape from the locked-down city. Look out for the story early next week. 

Hungary has fined 16 non-profits including the country’s Amnesty International branch for their campaign urging voters to cast invalid ballots in a referendum on new “child protection” laws. The package of bills were designed to strengthen punishments for pedophilia but later included a set of restrictions on “gay propaganda,” conflating pedophilia and homosexuality. The April 3 referendum, which promoted the myth that homosexuality is somehow related to pedophilia, did not pass with nearly 1.6 million of the votes ruled invalid. Tucker Carlson has released a new special on how to raise testosterone levels in men — and it’s full of fake science. He brings on a guest to suggest that “testicle tanning” using infrared light therapy will “optimize” testosterone and “take it to another level.” According to the fitness expert Carlson featured on the show, this is part of a new trend called “bromeopathy.” Pharmacologist Tyler Black tweeted that this therapy “does nothing for health and is 100% pseudoscience.” Red light therapy — along with UV light therapy — has long been a firm favorite in conspiracist circles. Let’s not forget, this week is the two-year anniversary of President Trump’s suggestion that bleach and UV light could cure the coronavirus, which sparked mass adulation among his QAnon fans, many of whom believe in the “healing powers of ultraviolet rays.”

WHAT WE’RE READING

As Covid misinformation spreads in Guatemala, vaccine doses are expiring. We reported in March how 3 million doses of the Russian vaccine Sputnik were left to spoil in Guatemala. Now nearly 1.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine have gone bad. Experts say the country’s lackluster response to Covid disinformation and conspiracy theories are at fault, reports Al Jazeera. 

New research shows that all over the world, countries used the Covid-19 pandemic as a cover to crack down on human rights. The study analyzed 39 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Mexico, the U.K. and the U.S., and found there was an overall decrease in human rights in 2020. “There is new evidence that some countries continue to use the pandemic as a reason to restrict human rights by muzzling dissent,” researcher Stephen Bagwell, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, wrote for the Conversation. 

And check out Sup China’s Sinica podcast to stay updated on all things China. Their recent episode from inside the Shanghai lockdown was fascinating listening. 

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