Infodemic: Focus on Beirut and Italy’s anti-vaccine movement enters big politics

Natalia Antelava


Welcome. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

Italy provides a new case study for how the coronavirus pandemic is boosting the ranks of anti-vaxxers. Campaigners have now formed a political party,  Il Movimento 3V, which is competing in elections and pushing for the abolition of mandatory immunisation programs. Here’s the full piece, but the highlights include: 

  • One of Il Movimento 3V’s activists is independent member of parliament Sara Cunial. She was once an MP for the populist Five Star Movement, but last April she was expelled from the party for alleging that it was linked to the mafia. 
  • The anti-vax movement in Italy has gained ground in recent years, in part thanks to the Five Star Movement. In 2019, the party opposed the passing of legislation to increase the number of compulsory vaccinations from four to 10. The law was eventually ushered through, in order to raise the country’s rate of vaccine uptake from below 80% to 95%, as recommended by the WHO. Italian officials say vaccination rates have improved since its introduction.
  • There are other signs that the pandemic has made Italians more susceptible to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Last month, for instance, over 500 municipalities across Italy took measures to halt the installation of 5G towers, owing to the spread of conspiracy theories linking cellular communications technology and the virus. 

We have been watching, in horror, the devastation and despair caused by a vast explosion in Beirut. Our team has been wading through the hundreds of conspiracy theories that are swirling around the internet, as some use the disaster to pursue their own political aims. 

  • Feeding the conspiracies are unanswered questions about how ammonium nitrate, which is banned in Lebanon, got to Beirut port and was allowed to stay there for six years in violation of the nation’s law and all public safety procedures. 
  • We tracked down the producers of the ammonium nitrate in Georgia, who sold it — in an apparently legal transaction — to an explosives factory in Mozambique. The trader and owner of the ship that carried the cargo is a Cyprus-based Russian businessman who has now been questioned by Cypriot police. According to the crew, he ordered the ship to change course and sail to Beirut instead of continuing to Mozambique. “I don’t know how he got the permission to dock in Beirut with that illegal cargo,” the Russian captain of the ship told Russian website MediaZona. 
  • Negligence and corruption are the known causes. This disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for Lebanon, which, before Tuesday’s explosion, was already in the throes of overlapping economic, political and public health crises. One likely effect of the blast, according to health professionals in Beirut, will be a worsening of the coronavirus pandemic. Virus monitoring has already halted. We have more below, so keep reading.


On July 27, 10 days before the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon reimposed a temporary lockdown in response to a new spike in cases. 

Fadi El-Jardali, a professor of health policy at the American University of Beirut who has advised the government on its Covid-19 response, told me there has already been an increase in cases after the blast. The disaster has also made it impossible to enforce the reinstated restrictions.

“We need global coordination and collaboration to ensure that the coronavirus does not get out of control. The numbers are very worrying. If we continue like that, we’re really heading into a crisis that no one would ever even imagine,” he said.

Three of Beirut’s hospitals are “completely dysfunctional and destroyed as a result of the blast,” said El-Jardali. Warehouses containing large amounts of essential medical supplies, including vaccines were blown up. Replacing these supplies will require humanitarian aid, which will have to be delivered via Lebanon’s other, smaller ports.

“Doctors are at full capacity, nurses are at full capacity, medical equipment is not really there. As it is, before this event, things were strained to the maximum. Now, you don’t even hear the word corona,” said Karim Makdisi, associate professor of politics at the American University of Beirut.

The collapse of the Lebanese currency will also make it much more difficult for Beirut’s working and middle-class citizens to repair the damage to their homes and livelihoods. Even replacing the windows that shattered across the city may be prohibitively costly. 

“The money doesn’t exist. Because when you buy anything here, everything’s charged in dollars, and the national currency has gone down by about 70%,” said Makdisi.

Foreign aid is called for, but poses its own risks. “The big question that everyone is asking is how do you do it in a way that the money that comes into the country is not stolen either by the banks or by the government agencies?” he added.

Hungry for more?

It’s been a while since I recommended a video, but here’s an incredible story of Seema Jilani, a pediatrician (and a friend) who sang to her wounded four-year-old daughter Iman in a crowded Beirut ambulance. Get a box of tissues before you click

Have a peaceful weekend.

The original version of this newsletter exaggerated the extent of damage cause by the explosion in Beirut. It also falsely compared the explosion to the force of a nuclear bomb. We apologize for the errors. — Natalia