Infodemic: Fake Covid-19 deaths in the UAE, South Africa’s rising xenophobia and the Uyghur lockdown

Katia Patin


Welcome. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, Coda’s Katia Patin will take you from South Africa to South Korea and Turkmenistan, for the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

First, a bizarre story from Abu Dhabi. This week, a reporter and interviewee were arrested over a TV bulletin, in which an Emirati man claimed that his family of five had died as a result of Covid-19. The United Arab Emirates is experiencing a 10% spike in new cases this month and the story was widely shared on social media. Officials have said that some of the family members named never even existed, while staff on the TV show in question have been fired and fined. Journalists in the UAE can face jail terms if found guilty of spreading what the state deems to be false information about Covid-19, while others face a $5,000 penalty. 

South Africa’s response to the coronavirus is fueling xenophobia, according to a new warning from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Back in April, government officials used the pandemic to justify the construction of a new border wall with Zimbabwe, warning that migrants would bring Covid-19 with them. Throughout the pandemic, lockdown measures have been aimed at migrant-owned shops, while those operated by South Africans remained open for business. Now, the UNHCR the country’s deteriorating economic situation is making matters even worse.

In Turkmenistan, media outlets have issued yet another curious health warning. This time, doctors are telling people to “ventilate” their homes against harmful “atmospheric dust” and to disinfect their belongings at least three times a day. Earlier this spring President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told his citizens to fumigate their homes with smoke from a native grass known as yuzarlik. The Central Asian dictatorship has not reported a single case of the coronavirus.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in met with 16 church representatives yesterday to appeal for cooperation as the virus continues to spread at religious services. The country’s latest outbreak has been traced to the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul. Over 1,000 worshippers and the church’s Reverend Jun Kwang-hoon all tested positive. Church leaders insisted that services cannot be compromised by the pandemic. Read our report on the shadowy cult at the center of South Korea’s first coronavirus outbreak here.


Two viral videos have recently emerged from China — and they couldn’t be more different. The first, filmed in Wuhan, shows a water park filled with people bouncing on colorful inflatables to electronic music. On the other, filmed in Xinjiang, voices can be heard crying out into the night from apartment blocks in apparent frustration.

Thirteen days have passed since the last coronavirus case was confirmed in Xinjiang, but most of the region’s 21 million residents remain confined to their homes as part of a strict lockdown that has been in force since mid-July. While some cities have begun to ease restrictions, draconian measures remain in place there. 

Social media users have shown evidence of apartment doors sealed shut from the outside and groups of residents being forced to drink traditional medicine by community officials. The volume of posts appears to have overwhelmed Chinese censors, as many have remained online long enough for journalists and activists to save screenshots.

I spoke with a Uyghur activist from Urumqi, the region’s capital, who now lives in exile from the region. He asked to remain anonymous, for fear of reprisals, but has been closely monitoring the online conversation.

Referring to the posts that have not been taken down, he explained that “the majority are from Han Chinese.” But the social media absence of Xinjiang’s Muslim communities, which make up more than 50% of the region’s population, may not be solely down to state censors. Two weeks ago, one of his Uyghur friends posted a video on WeChat of her family and neighbors screaming from their balconies in frustration. Moments later, she deleted it. People are “too scared to voice what they’re feeling because they are Uyghur,” he said.

Before you go

And now for your pseudoscience video of the week. This Polish YouTuber documented his health after receiving an injection of Sputnik V, the controversial Russian coronavirus vaccine. Just check out what happened to him. The clip — which is, of course, satirical — has been watched more than 1.3 million times. 

That’s it from me. Have a great weekend and on Monday you’ll hear from Isobel Cockerell with the latest Infodemic.

Thanks for reading,

Katia Patin
Multimedia Editor