UN slams virus disinfo, Turkmenistan is still in denial and Switzerland wants a vaccine referendum

Natalia Antelava


Welcome to the Infodemic. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the global pandemic response. 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.  

“Covid-19 is a communications crisis. It’s not simply a pandemic. It’s an infodemic and this has cost lives,’ said UN General Assembly President Volkan Bokzir, opening a two-day meeting to discuss the coronavirus crisis on Friday. Bokzir applauded leaps in vaccine development, but warned that “these welcome advancements will only work if people have the confidence to use them.” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decried nations that ignore guidance from the World Health Organization. He said that not only do these countries not follow WHO guidelines, some even reject basic facts, “and when countries go in their own direction, the virus goes in every direction.” 

Guterres did not name the countries, so we will. Keep reading.

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From Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to the president of Madagascar, this newsletter has been hard at work tracking the leading ambassadors of the Infodemic. Coda Story also produced this video about prominent Covid-19 denialists. But, when it comes to dismissing the threat posed by the pandemic, two countries are in a league of their own. They also happen to be the world’s worst dictatorships: 

Turkmenistan:  A few weeks ago, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov did what he does best, grabbing a brief moment of global attention with some bizarre news. 

This time it was the unveiling of a giant dog statue. Admittedly, it was a modest act compared to his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov, who erected a gilded monument to himself that revolves around the sun. 

What received no global attention was the dire Covid situation in the country:

  • According to the authorities, coronavirus never reached Turkmenistan. 
  • The government never used the word “pandemic” in the local context, and at some point activists were telling us that people were afraid of using the word “coronavirus” in public. 
  • After months of denial and refusing to allow the WHO into the country, officials could no longer deny persistent reports of people dying of pneumonia-like symptoms. They said these cases were caused first by toxic dust, then seasonal influenza. (Both links in Russian.) 
  • These are the official reasons why people in Turkmenistan have been ordered to wear masks. According to the government,Covid-19 still doesn’t exist in the country. 

North Korea: Like Turkmenistan, the regime officially maintains there have been no Covid-19 infections within its borders. To keep the virus out, the government locked down entire cities and counties, canceled major events and banned travel between provinces. 

Authorities also publicly executed a violator of the lockdown measures.

While the coronavirus is not officially present in North Korea, an anonymous source in the city of Manpo, near the Chinese border, told the South Korea-based Daily NK that some 100 people have died after showing coronavirus symptoms.

The state has quarantined people presenting with Covid-19 symptoms in nine facilities across North Korea.

  • In quarantine facilities, another source told Daily NK, “people don’t say the word ‘coronavirus,’” and those in isolation receive no medical treatment for the disease.
  • The centers reportedly do not provide people with adequate food, heating, or even beds, and no contact with the outside world is permitted. “If they fail to recover and die, their ashes are simply placed in an envelope and sent to their families,” the source said.

Meanwhile, leader Kim Jong-un, members of his family and senior officials may have already received a vaccination, courtesy of China.

Ironically, when it comes to immunization programs, imposing them in dictatorships like North Korea or Turkmenistan will be much easier than in democracies. For example, Switzerland wants a referendum on the matter. Below, Mariam Kiparoidze explains why stakes are high. 

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This week, a group of Swiss politicians began a campaign for a referendum that will introduce constitutional amendments to make compulsory vaccination illegal. Behind it is Richard Koller, a former member of Switzerland’s right-wing populist People’s Party (SVP) and now the president of the even more extreme Swiss Freedom Movement. 

If successful, the petition that Koller’s group is trying to push will introduce constitutional amendments to prevent compulsory vaccinations. His campaign is built around Covid-19. 

Background: Current Swiss law does not allow the authorities to vaccinate people against their will, but there is a legal loophole that allows the government to make vaccinations mandatory under extreme circumstances.  Although such vaccinations are limited to people in certain occupations — including health workers and people who work with the elderly — the anti-vaxx movement worries that this technicality will be used to force everyone to have the coronavirus shot. 

The anti-vaccination lobby has tried to get rid of the loophole before. In 2013 , Daniel Trippitsch, a prominent Swiss anti-vaxxer and naturopath led a campaign against mandatory immunizations. It went to a referendum but the electorate voted against it. Trippitsch has now joined the Swiss Freedom Movement, and today he will be campaigning in a very different environment. 

Here’s why:  In September 2020, The Lancet published a large-scale study on vaccine confidence in 149 countries, including Switzerland.  It clearly showed that in the past seven years, the Swiss have grown significantly more vaccine-hesitant. Although confidence in the safety of vaccines increased from 30% in 2015 to 33% in 2019, the number of those who believe they are important plummeted from 65% to 53%. 

Pascal Wagner-Egger, a social psychology researcher at the University of Fribourg, who studies conspiracy theories, told me that, like everywhere else, the pandemic has provided fertile ground for anti-vaccination narratives in Switzerland. 

What’s next: The Swiss Freedom Movement will need to gather 100,000 signatures in 18 months, in order for the referendum to go ahead. They shouldn’t have a problem doing that. What happens at the polls will depend on the vaccine’s global success.

Hungry for more? 

  • For our Disinformation channel, Ismail Einashe goes to Sicily to document how migrants have become scapegoats for the coronavirus crisis. 
  • For War on Science, Isobel Cockerell dives into a strangely soothing world of YouTube influencers who have an unusual way of confronting Covid testing fears.
  • And, in case you are hungry for more on Turkmenistan, Mariam Kiparoidze has you covered with this piece for our Authoritarian Tech channel. 

Enjoying the Infodemic? Sign up for Coda’s other newsletters: 

  • In the excellent Oligarchy, Oliver Bullough is tracking how Covid-19 and the world’s response to it is affecting the super-rich — and what it means for the rest of us. 
  • And, since you can’t understand the world without understanding China’s soft power, we have teamed up with CEPA to bring you China Influence Monitor. Subscribe here

Need a break from it all? Here’s my new favorite thing: The World on Your Plate, a fabulous weekly newsletter about food from one of the Infodemic’s loyal readers.  

And last but not least: many thanks to so many of you who have contributed to Coda’s Newsmatch, a program that doubles donations made to non-profit journalism organizations. Every dollar counts, and all it takes is a click.  

Thanks for reading, keep your comments, questions and story ideas coming.   

See you next week.