Mexican election campaigning in a coffin, flights to nowhere and Covid chaos in North Korea

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. Here are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our team’s attention this week and deserve yours.

As cases rise in Asia, governments are growing desperate, enforcing ever harsher crackdowns on individuals who break virus regulations. This week, in the Philippines, a man died after he was forced to do 300 squats as punishment for breaking the country’s strict curfew. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, social media users who are caught spreading fake news and rumors about the vaccine will face police action, according to the country’s health minister.

In Mexico, a congressional candidate is drawing attention to the country’s coronavirus crisis from a coffin. Carlos Mayorga kicked off his campaign at a rally in Chihuahua state on Tuesday, lying inside a gold-trimmed casket, flanked by aides dressed in personal protective equipment and carrying enormous bouquets. The funereal scene was a nod to more than 200,000 people who have died from Covid-19 in Mexico, which has the world’s third-highest pandemic death toll. Politicians, Mayorga said, “have remained silent about the chaotic Covid situation.” We can only imagine what he has in store for his next event.

And this week’s Infodemic award goes to Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, who apparently lied about receiving a Covid-19 vaccine. In March, days after the first batches of AstraZeneca reached Somalia, the president’s press office put out a release with a photograph showing Farmajo being injected and citing his “strong commitment to save the health of the country.” According to Horn Observer, the jab was fake. Three health workers who witnessed the photoshoot told journalists that the syringe was empty. Another official confirmed the rumor, saying that Farmajo didn’t trust the local healthcare system and hoped to get a real vaccine in Turkey. 

On the subject of vaccine tourism, Serbia just beat Russia and has become the first country to officially open its borders to people willing to pay for immunizations. The government says foreigners are now welcome to come and take advantage of the nation’s surplus shots. Tour operators in Europe and Turkey have started to promote vaccine trips to Moscow, and a posting on the official Sputnik V Twitter account has stated that tour packages to Russia will start in July. Not everyone believes that they will. One travel agent in Turkey tells us that the Turkish government’s reluctance to give companies the green light indicates that there is no political agreement about them. Meanwhile, Emirates’ Airline is advertising “flights to nowhere.” The two-and-a-half-hour excursions will fly passengers over various parts of the UAE and then return to where they took off. The company may have overestimated the nostalgia for air travel: tickets are not selling.

One place that will not be opening up for any kind of tourism any time soon is North Korea. The notoriously insular country is terrified of Covid-19 and is now more closed off than ever. Isobel Cockerell has been trying to piece together what’s going on there.

SPOTLIGHT: TIME STOPS IN NORTH KOREA

by Isobel Cockerell 

North Korea’s border with China is sealed and travel within the country is outlawed. The government has dramatically reduced imports of food and other essentials, and said that the virus can spread through birds crossing the border and “yellow dust” blowing in from China. Without vital supplies such as batteries, even household clocks have died, according to Human Rights Watch. Time has pretty much stopped. 

Foreign diplomats can’t take it anymore. Many foreign missions shut up shop last year and the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang has reported that, in late March, 38 more international representatives left the country. 

“Locks hang on the doors of embassies of Great Britain, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Czechia, Sweden, Switzerland and France, all international staff of humanitarian organizations are gone,” the embassy posted on its Facebook page. 

The text vividly describes the increasingly unbearable conditions, detailing “all-encompassing restrictions, unprecedented in their harshness, the extreme shortages of basic goods and drugs, and the inability to address any health issues.” It ended by proclaiming: “Meanwhile, the Russian tricolor continues to wave proudly in the wind in the center of Pyongyang. The motherland can rely on us!” 

Despite reports of sick soldiers and rumors of outbreaks in the cities of Chongjin and Manpo, the North Korean government still insists that the country has yet to see a single case. 

But even Kim Jong-un admits the dire straits the country is in. This week, he told a political conference that North Korea is facing its “worst-ever situation,” comparing it to the devastating famine of the 1990s, when an estimated three million people starved to death. 

At the same time, Kim is tightening his grip on the Covid narrative. The country has been placed under an even stricter information blackout than usual, with strict penalties for speaking to foreign media. “It has become increasingly difficult to learn the truth about what is happening to ordinary people,” wrote Human Rights Watch researcher Lina Yoon in a report released in March. 

In a further blow to any hope of engagement with the outside world, this week, North Korea announced that its athletes would not be participating in the Tokyo Olympic Games because of virus fears.

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

  • I recommend this excellent Reuters Institute at Oxford report on what journalists and governments should know as we enter the next stage of the pandemic. Lots there, including one particularly interesting tidbit: while journalists spend a lot of time debunking vaccine misinformation spread by ordinary people, disinformation that comes from politicians is the most toxic of all. 
  • Coda’s Masho Lomashvili has enjoyed this report about how pandemic-era Zoom happy hours have led to a rise in wine-themed domain registrations and wine scams!
  • And if you are craving more North Korea stories, Isobel Cockerell recommends Crash Landing On You, the highly unrealistic and slushy K-drama about a young Seoul heiress who accidentally paraglides into the DMZ and meets a hunky North Korean soldier. It’s taken South Korea and Netflix by storm, and we’re addicted, too. 
  • Not pandemic related, but our managing editor Burhan Wazir recommends this wonderful piece about imaginative activists in Myanmar who are using low-tech tools to turn soldiers to their side

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

Got questions? Suggestions? Story tips?  Hit reply any time. We love hearing from you. And please do consider joining our membership program!

See you next Friday.

Natalia Antelava 

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

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