Performing a Covid ‘exorcism’, Chile’s Sinovac woes and anti-lockdown violence in Montreal

Welcome to the Infodemic and, if you just joined us, thank you for signing up! We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. It’s reporter Isobel Cockerell here, taking over from Natalia for the week. Here are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our team’s attention this week and deserve yours. 

Who should this week’s Infodemic prize go to? I vote for the faith healer who visited a closed Covid ward in a major hospital in Peshawar. Accompanied by his armed guard and entourage, he blew air onto patients in an effort to rid them of the virus by “exorcising” it from their bodies. Doctors and staff reportedly did not intervene. 

The trend of dressing up as your grandparents to jump the vaccine queue is spreading: two pseudo-abuelos, aged 30 and 35, were arrested in Mexico this week after their suspiciously youthful voices were clocked by officials. They were so desperate for a jab that they had even dyed their eyebrows and hair snowy white. 

Clouds are gathering over Chile’s use of China’s Sinovac vaccine as it battles a Covid-19 surge. The country has so far been the golden child of Latin America’s vaccine rollout, with 39 in every 100 people immunized, one of the world’s highest inoculation rates. But as cases spike, some are looking askance at Chile’s reliance on Sinovac, particularly after the head of the Chinese CDC admitted the efficacy of the shot is “not high”. After global media jumped on this rare admission, he quickly reversed his own statement, saying it was a “misunderstanding.” The revelation also prompted Chilean authorities to defend their use of the jab. Further complicating matters is a recent study by the University of Chile, which found Beijing’s vaccine to have an efficacy rate of 54%.

Brazilian President Bolsonaro mocked Sinovac’s efficacy, asking ironically “Is 50% so good?”. It’s a pretty tame comment from someone who once suggested the Pfizer vaccine might turn you into a crocodile. Brazil is battling a deadly new variant that seems to affect young people and babies much more than the original strain. But true to form, Bolsonaro is dismissive of the “climate of dread” accompanying the new variant, P1, and has offered up yet another unproven cure: this time the male hormone-blocker proxalutamide.

“I can even imagine Bolsonaro and his former Health Minister, the army general Eduardo Pazuello, already massaging proxalutamide onto their scrotums,” the science writer and disinfo-debunker Leonid Schneider wrote on his blog recently. Thanks for the graphic image. 

In an effort to counter Chinese vaccine diplomacy, India donated hundreds of thousands of AstraZeneca shots to neighboring Bhutan. The country let the vials languish in fridges for months, waiting for an auspicious date that had the approval of Buddhist monks. The appointed day came on March 27, and once the vaccine rollout began, there was no stopping it. It only took 16 days to give a first dose to 93% of Bhutan’s 800,000 adults, and this week the tiny Himalayan kingdom nosed past Israel to become one of the most vaccinated countries in the world.

SPOTLIGHT: ANTI-LOCKDOWN VIOLENCE IN MONTREAL AND CANADA’S DEADLY THIRD WAVE

More than a thousand protesters in Montreal rallied against a new curfew imposed on the city this week as Canada battles its deadly third wave. People set fire to trash cans and smashed up stores in a wave of violence. Further digging revealed this is hardly the city’s first experience of anti-science dissent. During the smallpox epidemic of 1885, local press described a “howling mob” of anti-vaccine rioters wrecking a city health office. They then rampaged through the streets, smashing up pharmacies stocking the smallpox vaccination.

Canada is currently grappling with the UK and Brazilian virus variants and numbers are soaring. This week’s infection rates were the country’s worst since the pandemic began. On Wednesday, Canada’s Covid rates overtook the U.S.’s for the first time.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s calling the virus situation “deadly serious,” and it’s being compounded by media reports about lockdown fatigue and rising anti-masker movements. In recent months, protesters have picketed vaccination drives in the city, with one anti-vax mob even putting a hospital on lockdown, demanding a patient be released. 

Meanwhile, Canada’s vaccination program is limping along, despite the government hoarding huge quantities of vaccine. Just 2% of Canadians have been fully vaccinated, compared to almost a quarter of people in the U.S., according to the science publication, Our World In Data. Canadian media have reported all too familiar tales of crowded ICUs and exhausted nurses, while low-income neighborhoods are seeing the lowest vaccine uptakes. Amid the despair, misinformation is thriving. “When people feel like they lack control over situations, their brains really want certainty. They want to feel like they’re in control. I think that leads to people wanting to embrace conspiracy theories and health misinformation,” said Dr. Jonathan N. Stea, an Alberta-based clinical psychologist who’s part of Science Up First, a Canadian movement aimed at debunking pseudoscience.

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

  • India plans to use facial recognition in its Covid vaccine drive. The technology will reportedly make entrance into vaccination centers “contactless,” but has already prompted concerns from digital rights activists that it will be used to surveil Indians and invade their privacy, according to Coda’s Mariam Kiparoidze. 
  • As governments around the world rush to reassure their populations about any rare cases of blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines, a new vaccine hierarchy has emerged. The cool TikTok kids all favor Pfizer, Dolly Parton fans are Moderna’d up, while Johnson and Johnson devotees have a distinctly Hufflepuff aura. NBC’s Kalhan Rosenblatt deep-dived into TikTok to get this glorious story. 

Many thanks to Coda’s Katia Patin, Erica Hellerstein, and Masho Lomashvili for contributing to this week’s Infodemic. And as always there is a lot more from our team on codastory.com 

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See you next Friday.

Isobel Cockerell 

Reporter, Coda Story

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