The Infodemic—March 30

Natalia Antelava


Welcome! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what’s been done to combat it. Here are a few narratives – real and fake – that have caught our attention 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been at the forefront of downplaying the country’s worsening Covid-19 outbreak (4,256 infected, 136 deaths).

Going against state governors and his own health minister, Bolsanaro has called on Brazilians to relax quarantine measures and get back to work. 

Quarantined Brazilians responded with protests—banging pots and pans from windows and balconies of major cities. And on Monday Twitter took down two of Bolsonaro’s tweets in which he was critical of the quarantine measures (the only other world leader this has happened to so far is Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro). 

But what could undermine Bolsonaro even more is a behind-the-scenes development reported by Spanish newspaper El Pais’ Brazilian edition. 

El Pais reports anonymous military sources saying that the armed forces are signaling support for Bolsonaro’s Vice President Hamilton Mourão in the event that Bolsonaro is impeached or resigns. At least two meetings were held in Brasilia this week in which members of the country’s army, navy, and air force discussed strategies for hypothetical scenarios in which Bolsonaro’s presidency is ended by the pandemic.

Mourão is a former general who has spoken openly about his hypothetical support for the military intervening in civilian politics—something it has largely refrained from doing since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. 

Why this matters: Covid-19 is pushing Latin American militaries back into politics.

The specter of an expansive domestic military role had already appeared. In the 1980s and 1990s, governments across Latin America transitioned, for the most part peacefully, from military dictatorships to democracies. But in Americas Quarterly, a special report published in December on the comeback of militaries around the region suggests that this trend could be reversed. The governments of Chile, Ecuador, and Peru relied heavily on their armed forces in their management of the widespread protests toward the end of 2019; before last year, Chile had not deployed soldiers in the streets since the Pinochet era. Perhaps most concerning was the role that the Bolivian military played in the ouster of president Evo Morales (he fled the country after the commander of the armed forces publicly “suggested” he resign).

InfoDefensa, a publication focusing on security and defense across Latin America and Spain, provides this country-by-country report on how armed forces are being used to combat the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Russia had a change of heart about its Covid-19 narrative, abandoning “it’s all under control” to a full lockdown in the last 24 hours. 

Moscow residents now face some of the toughest restrictions in the world: no one is allowed to move farther than 100 meters from their residences. 

In the meantime, state media is cheering up its viewers with the news that Russian scientists have invented a ventilator that can support four patients at the time. Reports say production has already begun and 80,000 ventilators will be ready by the end of April.

From her lockdown in Moscow, our Russia editor Katerina Fomina reached out to medical doctors who dismissed the reports as “utter nonsense” – this article explains why.

This is not the only piece of medical disinformation going around in Russia. Our reporter Isobel Cockerell has been looking into another story spreading not just in Russia but also in Europe. Read on.  

Covid-19 Comeback for an Untested Soviet Drug

By Isobel Cockerell

This week, I’ve been looking into a raft of fake treatments for COVID-19. Among them is a mysterious Soviet antiviral drug called Arbidol. It’s never gone through a full clinical trial, and there’s no evidence it works at all against the coronavirus. But over the past three months, sales of the drug in Russia have skyrocketed, alongside especially strong interest in it from Italy. 

It began in Russia back in January, when an advertisement broadcast over four of Russia’s most popular radio stations touted Arbidol’s effectiveness against coronavirus. 

The Russian government found that the message was in violation of advertising law. But it was too late. When Russia sent a huge military aid package to Italy, Arbidol’s claim to cure the virus also took hold on Italian social media – mostly thanks to one man, Paolo Gellano, a construction worker from Umbria. 

Gellano heard about Arbidol online, and then filmed himself buying it during a layover at Moscow’s International Airport. His video went completely viral, gaining 33,000 shares, and attracting the attention of the governing Five Star Movement. 

I have been speaking to Gellano to find out what it was like to become the central figure in a disinformation story, so stay tuned for more.

Unprecedented? Nope, just forgotten

I keep hearing “unprecedented” every time I turn on TV but what I realized this weekend is that a version of everything you have read above has in fact already happened. Here are examples: 

  • In Brazil, a popular magazine undermined efforts to combat the outbreak there by telling its readers that its danger is exaggerated to justify imposing a “scientific dictatorship” and violating their rights. 
  • Fake cures are everywhere: people die taking mercury which is rumored to treat the virus, and more people take up smoking in the US after it is promoted as a prophylactic.

I can’t link to any of these examples because all of them come from Laura Spinney’s book “Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918” about the worst pandemic of modern times, which killed between 50-100 million people. 

Spinney’s book describes how the death toll soared in towns and cities where local church leaders refused to stop their services or other large gatherings, saying prayer was the best answer. 

Today: around half of Israelis hospitalized with coronavirus are ultra-Orthodox, even though their community makes up just 10% of Israel’s population, according to this Jerusalem Post article. 

Many other religious communities are struggling with social distancing. We recently covered Orthodox Church’s refusal to change its rituals. Two weeks on, this video from last Sunday’s service in Tbilisi, speaks for itself. 

Stay healthy (and sane!) 


PS. It always takes a village, in this case a team to bring you this newsletter. For this edition, special thanks to Gautama Mehta, Katerina Fomina and Isobel Cockerell.  

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