The real cost of China’s vaccine diplomacy and coronavirus holiday gifts that you need to avoid

As Covid-19 cases have risen around the world, so has the torrent of fake news, junk science and conspiracy theories surrounding the virus — and we’ve been watching out for the worst offenders.

Here are the narratives that have grabbed our attention this week and deserve yours. 

China’s vaccine diplomacy is making its first big push in a NATO country. The first shipment of the Sinovac immunization will arrive in Turkey shortly, as part of a 20 million-dose deal signed last month. But there’s a geopolitical twist. The Beijing-based Global Times has heralded a “giant step forward” in relations, stating that Turkey has pledged to intensify efforts against activism in its large Uyghur diaspora. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that the authorities will not allow anyone in Turkey to “undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Background: Though Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan usually champions Muslim causes, he is tight-lipped over China. His country extradites Uyghurs and lets Chinese spies operate with apparent impunity. Closer cooperation means the plight of exiles will further deteriorate. 

Why this matters: This story is one of the starkest examples so far of what vaccine diplomacy really means for China. It will strike fear into the heart of Turkey’s sizable Uyghur population, who follow every diplomatic development between the two countries with hawk-like attention. 

“Many Uyghurs in Turkey worry that the Turkish government might send them back to China at any moment, or that CCP spies are watching their every move,” says Coda’s Isobel Cockerell who has reported extensively on Uyghur issues.   

And now for something festive. Here’s our rundown of presents you shouldn’t be buying for your friends and relatives… 

ANTI-SCIENCE HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE by Katia Patin

The pandemic has caused scams of every kind to spike, from identity theft to fake romances and phishing emails masquerading as government aid. With the holiday season approaching, here are four stocking-fillers that are best avoided.

5GBioShield: This USB thumb drive promises to radiate a shield with 130 feet of protection from “electro-smog” and 5G radiation when plugged in. With a price tag of $250, one technology reviewer labeled it as “one of the biggest tech scams ever.” The drive’s cheap gold coating and embossed Saint. George and the dragon logo makes you wonder who would ever fall for it. But these scams exist because they work. In this case, members of an advisory council on 5G in the British town of Glastonbury endorsed the product in an April report, prompting the town council to distance itself from the committee and redact the document after it attracted negative media attention.

Air Doctor: We’ve reported on this supposed air purifier with “virus blocking” properties in the spring, when it was worn by a number of prominent global political figures. According to its manufacturers, the $20 badge-like device can kill Covid-19 — with the important caveat that it does not protect against person-to-person transmission. I was shocked when I ran into someone actually wearing this strange talisman on the street: a medical student from Azerbaijan, who said many doctors in her country were wearing them. “What’s the harm?” she shrugged. when I asked her why she put any stock in it.

Covid Organics. Hundreds of oils, teas, supplements and other Covid-19 pseudo-cures are being peddled online. But there’s only one sanctioned by a president. Madagascar’s leader Andry Rojoelina has exported a herbal infusion called Covid Organics to dozens of African countries and it’s being offered to schoolchildren in Madagascar. The drink is reportedly incredibly bitter, unlike the syrupy miracle cure being promoted this week by Sri Lanka’s state minister of indigenous medicine. A mixture of honey and nutmeg, it sounds like a holiday cocktail, and all for just $35 a bottle. 

Covid-19 detector wands. Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Hossein Salami ceremoniously displayed a “state-of-the-art” Covid-19 testing tool on government television back in April. The device could identify virus contamination from up to 300 feet away, Salami said in a statement that quickly went viral after the wand was identified as a counterfeit bomb-detector. Fake coronavirus tests come in all sorts of packaging. In the U.S. the FBI has been tracking the illegal online sale of fake Covid-19 antibody tests, which could present a much more widespread danger to unsuspecting consumers.

Hungry for more?  

The pandemic has deepened the reliance of news outlets on support from tech partners, according to new research from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The center analyzed more than 150 coronavirus-related announcements made by tech companies over the first  six months of the pandemic. Facebook and Google, research shows, became the top providers of emergency relief funding for journalism. But this aid comes at a price. The authors of the paper, titled The Great Pandemic Funding Push, say that their findings bring “urgency to the debate over the ethics of accepting platform dollars.” 

“I am recuperating from a virus trending in the ‘physical world,” stated a cryptic tweet from the  British ambassador to Turkmenistan this week. Thousands are believed to have been infected by Covid-19 in the country and many have died, but no one knows the real numbers because, officially, the virus does not exist there. For much of the pandemic, Turkmen dictator President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has effectively banned the use of the word “coronavirus” in the local context — he has no problem admitting that it exists in other countries — and the British ambassador appears to have complied. But I am burying the lede here. The truly remarkable thing about His Excellency Hugh Philpott’s diplomatic efforts is this music video, produced in the best tradition of Turkmen state propaganda. Just compare it to this

“I hear from other little birds that you like my song. That makes me genuinely happy and is helping me to recover,” Philpott posted on Twitter.  

And that’s it from us for 2020. What a year it’s been. Thank you for joining us, for all your questions, comments and requests, and your support. And, If you are in a generous mood, remember, all donations through Christmas will be matched. 

The Infodemic is taking a break until January 15. We hope to be covering better news in 2021. 

Happy holidays from all of the Coda team. 

Natalia 

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