Infodemic: A battle for political survival in Belarus and the seafarers left adrift by Covid-19

Natalia Antelava


Welcome. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, how Covid-19 helped to prepare the ground for protests in Belarus and what it’s like to be a seaman during the pandemic. 

Below are the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

Sign up for the Infodemic tracking global Covid-19 disinformation

Incredible images of protesters clashing with police have emerged from Belarus, where the incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko officially won 80% of the vote in the nation’s election. The opposition, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, refuses to accept the results. Here’s how the pandemic shaped this historic event. 

  • Covid-19 has played a subtle but important role in undermining the 26-year rule of Europe’s last dictator. Earlier this year, worried about Belarus’ already failing economy, Lukashenko refused to lock down and simply denied Covid-19 was a threat.
  • This had a double-whammy effect. Belarussians were left to self-organize and adopt preventive measures. Dozens of initiatives stepped in where the government had failed, helping medical workers and each other with supplies and donations. As people searched for reliable information on the virus, they turned away from state media that denied its existence and towards opposition and activist outlets. Ahead of the vote, the pandemic significantly weakened the effectiveness of Lukashenko’s state propaganda machine. 
  • More than 600 activists have been arrested in Belarus since May. The protests, which erupted after the government published exit polls suggesting Lukashenko’s victory, are unprecedented. Overnight, police violently dispersed demonstrations, using tear gas, flash grenades and water cannons. Shocking videos on social media show police vans driving into crowds and knocking down protesters.
  • So far, Lukashenko has not made a public appearance. But in one of his most recent interviews — here it is in Russian — the president, who had tested positive for Covid-19, said he had been contaminated on purpose by someone who “planted” the virus. With protests rocking Belarus, it looks like he is entering a battle for political survival. This is a story to follow.

Singapore is seeing record numbers of dengue fever cases, and the country’s National Environmental Agency says the spike is linked to the coronavirus. In April, the state reimposed a partial lockdown, and people have been asked to work from home. The high number of individuals staying at home, authorities say, is contributing to the rise in cases, since the mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever thrive indoors.

Last week, as we researched the voyage to Beirut of the MV Rhosus and its lethal cargo, our reporter Isobel Cockerell was struck by the plight of seafarers during the pandemic. Scroll down to see what she has found.

Sign up for the Infodemic tracking global Covid-19 disinformation

SEAFARER’S LOCKDOWN by Isobel Cockerell 

Lockdowns, border controls and quarantine measures mean that seafarers are no longer allowed to disembark when they arrive in port, and can’t then fly back to their home countries.

Vikas Upadhyay, 25, a navigation officer from Mumbai working on a ship carrying petroleum, was forced to stay onboard two extra months after his contract ended in April. “I couldn’t sign off, because of this pandemic,” he said. “My father was having an operation. I wanted to come home, so I could take care of him. But I couldn’t.” 

The coronavirus has left hundreds of thousands of sailors in limbo, with some ending up on their vessels for a total of 18 months, according to this United Nations-run news site.  

Eventually, when Upadhyay’s ship was passing India, en route from China, his captain got permission to make a detour and drop him off. Others haven’t been so lucky. Morale among seafarers stuck on their ships is plummeting, according to 44-year-old Roedi Dimakiling, a former third officer on a coal ship, who is now sheltering in place with his wife at their home near San Diego, California. 

He told me that his brother-in-law was coming to the end of his 12-month contract when the pandemic hit. By the time he was eventually repatriated, he had spent a year-and-a-half at sea. 

Dimakiling started up a Facebook page titled My Seaman’s Book to try and keep sailors’ spirits up. “It’s very difficult at sea, especially after 16 or 18 months. You get depressed, your body’s tired,” he said. 

Many cargo ships are not equipped with wireless internet access and other connections are painfully slow. To while away the endless days, sailors have begun filming TikTok videos (here is one R-rated example) and dances, uploading them when they reach a port. “It’s like living in the 1990s,” Dimakiling told me.

The lack of connectivity has another effect on life at sea during a pandemic. “Most seafarers have no clue what’s really happening. They don’t watch or read the news,” Dimakiling said. “They ask so many questions, ‘Why can’t we go home? Why?’”

Sign up for the Infodemic tracking global Covid-19 disinformation

Hungry for more?

As always, many thanks to all of you who are sending tips, questions and feedback. We want to hear from you, so please hit reply anytime to tell us how we can make the Infodemic more suited to your needs. 

Thanks for reading and see you on Friday,