The Infodemic — March 25

Natalia Antelava


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We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what’s being done to combat it. 

Leading today’s selection are the international ramifications of President Donald Trump’s encouragement of the use of chloroquine to treat the coronavirus. “We know it’s not going to kill anybody,” he tweeted

Except it did. An Arizona man died after drinking fish-tank cleaner that contains chloroquine. 

In Ukraine health authorities noticed a spike in the advertisement of homemade chloroquine-based medication and issued a warning urging people to avoid self-medicating. 

Some social media users in France called on their government to start using chloroquine. “Let us avoid the carnage at all costs and give treatments with chloroquine. It’s urgent,” says this widely shared tweet.  

A pharmacist group in Ghana asked its members not to sell chloroquine tablets to the public without a valid prescription. After “the news from the US”, their statement says, there has been a rush by many to acquire these medications.”  

In Nigeria three people were hospitalized after overdosing on chloroquine.

Context: Chloroquine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, but the FDA has not approved it to treat the coronavirus.

Staying in Nigeria: the government is warning about a new “ransomware” app called Covid-19 Tracker that markets itself as a virus map with updates on the virus “near you.” Once downloaded the app blocks access to all personal data and threatens to delete it unless you pay $100 in bitcoin in 48 hours.

And there are plenty of scammers elsewhere. From fake charities to emails, texts, and phishing, the Federal Trade Commission has a useful overview of Covid-19 scams and what you can do to avoid them. 

Shout out: and while we are on the subject of scammers this seems like a good place to give a shout-out to our colleagues at OCCRP who just launched a new page watching how organized criminal groups and corrupt officials are profiting from the pandemic. 

The Covid-19 narrative in Iran seems to be changing, with the hard-liners switching to a more proactive anti-US propaganda offensive.  

State-controlled media is now reporting that the Revolutionary Guard will conduct biological defense drills because “the pandemic may be the outcome of a biological attack targeting certain nations.” (Here is a photo gallery of bio-defense drills from Tuesday night.)

Earlier this week, the official twitter account of the Foreign Ministry of Iran began openly promoting a theory that the virus was engineered in the United States. As evidence, Iran’s Foreign Ministry uses an article that is based on Chinese state media reports and is published by Global Research, a site known for peddling conspiracy theories. 

Context: In addition to bio-drills on Wednesday, Iran introduced local lockdowns, restricting travel between different cities. With the official number of deaths now at 2,077, and the real number of cases suspected to be much higher, Iran remains the worst hit country in the Middle East. 

In a bizarre story from Turkey (in Turkish), a cologne mania has engulfed the country and a man  in the town of Bacilar has been arrested for pouring cologne over the head of an elderly stranger in a suburb of Istanbul.  

It’s a tradition in Turkey to offer guests locally made lemon scented cologne, which has a high alcohol content. Since the outbreak cologne sales have skyrocketed. Government encouraged the use of cologne, saying they would distribute it for free, along with face masks, to all Turks above 65. 

There has been very little information on what’s happening with Covid-19 in Myanmar. I’ve asked our reporter Gautama Mehta to look into it. Here is what he found.

Underreported: Myanmar

By Gautama Mehta

Until early this week, Myanmar had officially claimed to have zero infections. 

A highly unlikely claim, considering that the country shares a 1370-mile land border with China. 

The Burmese government was widely mocked after a March 14 press conference in which an official said the country’s “lifestyle and diet” would protect against the virus, citing Myanmar citizens’ “predominant use of paper currency” over credit cards and the absence of the Western “customs of greeting with handshakes, hugs or kisses.”

“Reminds me of the time the Burmese regime denied there was bird flu in-country because sick birds don’t have the strength to fly over the mountains to reach the country,” read this tweet.  

There are now officially three cases of the coronavirus in Myanmar. The reason why the number is still so low is that, as of Monday, only 300 tests had been conducted in a population of 51 million, with Reuters reporting that, “until recently, each test had to be approved by a central committee based in the capital of Naypyitaw.”

A widespread outbreak may cripple the meager public health infrastructure of the country. Its effects are likely to be particularly severe in Rakhine state, where over a hundred thousand Rohingya remain interned in camps, according to a press release from the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK. 

Rakhine is not only the center of the Rohingya crisis, but also the site of the government’s ongoing conflict with a (non-Rohingya) separatist insurgency, the Arakan Army, which has contributed to widespread internal displacement.

Particularly concerning in the context of the coronavirus is the internet blackout the government has intermittently imposed since June on nine townships, due to which around a million people currently lack access to mobile internet and telecommunications networks, according to Human Rights Watch. Coda Story reported on the Rakhine blackouts in July.

Digital rights group Access Now called on the government of Myanmar (alongside those of Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh) to end all internet blackouts, a move it said would save lives during the pandemic.

Hungry for more?

Here are a few pieces from Coda and elsewhere to keep you going:

  • Coda’s Burhan Wazir dives into the weirdness of coronavirus related disinformation targeting Qatar
  • While Russian state television is broadcasting assurances of a smooth response to Covid-19, we speak to patients, who say that chaos and newly adopted protocols in some hospitals are helping to fuel the spread of the virus.
  • Here is an excellent big picture view on the unique challenges Covid-19 poses to Africa from our editorial partners at South Africa’s Mail and Guardian. 
  • And if you share my fascination with Turkey’s cologne obsessions, Al-Monitori’s Culture Editor Nazlan Ertan has a great piece entitled “From Cannabis to cologne, Turks flaunt their ‘cures’ to coronavirus” 

Social distancing Iraq style

Social distancing has not been easy for many, but here is one Iraqi man who is not letting anyone take chances.   

Thanks for reading and stay healthy,

Natalia Antelava

P.S. It takes a village. Or in our case a team to bring you this newsletter. For this edition special thanks to Coda’s Dave Stelfox, Chaewon Chung and Gautama Mehta for their contributions. Send us tips and feedback!