A “surreal nightmare” in the Czech Republic and the global armed response to Covid-19

Welcome to the Infodemic. We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our lives. Below are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

As Covid-19 infections continue their downward trajectory in much of the world, the Czech Republic is experiencing a dramatic spike. Not only is the country seeing more new cases relative to its population than any other in the world, but the death rate is also nearly triple that of any other European country. “Living at the epicenter of this surreal nightmare is scary,” says Prague-based journalist Maksym Eristavi. “This is what happens when Covid management gets 100% about politics, and 0% about healthcare or science.” Political infighting is crippling the pandemic response. While Prime Minister Andrej Babis says that the country faces “hellish days” ahead, his opponents argue that it is time for the government to admit that its strategy has failed and to start taking the opposition’s proposals more seriously.  

Israel has taken vaccine diplomacy to a new level. It will be giving out 100,000 Moderna vaccines to 15 diplomatic allies. Officially, they come with no strings attached, but four out of 15 beneficiaries — the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Hungary — have either moved or promised to move their diplomatic missions to Jerusalem. The phenomenon is also spreading to hostage exchange deals. Israel agreed to buy an unspecified number of Sputnik vaccines for Syria, in exchange for an Israeli prisoner. Meanwhile, the 4.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will only be getting 5,000 doses from Israel.

This week’s innovative solution to vaccine hesitancy comes from… Kazakhstan. The country  just launched a Telegram chatbot designed to convince people to get vaccinated. It was built by the Red Crescent Kazakhstan and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies after polling showed that the majority of Kazakhs, including medical workers, rely on social media for their vaccine information. Kazakhstan is the first Central Asian country to start mass immunizations, with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, but hesitancy is rampant. It probably doesn’t help that the health minister and the president are yet to receive the shot. Maybe the chatbot can convince them to lead the way. 

All around the world, the pandemic has upended civilian-military relations, expanding the role of armed forces in unprecedented ways. Katia Patin examines what that means for us. Keep reading.

PANDEMIC MILITARIZATION by Katia Patin

Help is what you would expect from the military during an emergency of this scale. From the U.S. to Germany and Taiwan, armed forces have been administering vaccines, carrying out cross-border pandemic missions or working to mass produce masks.

But in some places the coronavirus has also shifted the role of the armed forces far beyond  usual expectations: 

  • In Latin America, the military has aided essential access to remote regions. It has, however, also stepped into the role of policing in countries like Chile, where it controls curfews and carries out joint operations with law enforcement. In Ecuador, some of the hardest-hit provinces were placed under martial law to ensure pandemic restrictions were being adhered to. Meanwhile, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro replaced nearly his entire health ministry with military officers. 
  • In South Asia, the militarized pandemic response has serious implications for post-conflict societies such as Sri Lanka, where intelligence services are running contact tracing programs. Activists have described harassment at checkpoints in the Tamil-majority Northern Province. The controls “feel more like surveillance than pandemic precautions,” said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. In Bangladesh, the Rapid Action Battalion, which includes members of the military and the police, has been used to monitor social media and arrest people accused of spreading coronavirus disinformation. In many cases the “disinformation” amounted to criticism of the government’s response.
  • In France, President Emmanuel Macron has drafted the armed forces into an unprecedented peacetime role, calling for a “war” against coronavirus. One of the largest armed forces in Europe, French troops are manning warships converted to provide coronavirus care, with some sent across the Atlantic to French territories in the Caribbean. In Poland, several thousand soldiers are being sent to hospitals around the country to keep tallies of available ICU beds, despite reports that they had no training on how to do so.

Why it matters: In many cases around the world, military forces are doing what we expect them to do in a crisis — coming to the aid of the citizens they have sworn to protect. However, according to David Kuehn, a senior researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, such interventions need to be carefully managed.

“Militaries are not trained to do neighborhood policing or to be law and order,” he told me. “They are trained to destroy the enemy.”

That means that the expansion of their duties and responsibilities during the pandemic can have serious implications for civil rights and basic freedoms.

“The longer this whole thing goes on and the less clearly defined the military’s roles are, the more likely it is that the military becomes more powerful,” he said. 

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

Good news (maybe): After complaints from Washington, Beijing has promised to stop using anal swabs to test American diplomats. Good on Vice for digging up the story, though it is worth noting that it’s based entirely on a few comments from an unnamed State Department official. 

And more good news for Russian diplomats who managed to make it out of North Korea — on foot. This video has gone viral across social media platforms, so the chances are that you’ve seen it already. But if you haven’t, it’s quite something.   

As always, there is plenty more for you at codastory.com, including a fascinating look at how Burmese military internet shutdowns are destroying businesses but failing to stop demonstrations. And last, but far from least this fantastic story by Darren Loucaides about an apparently coordinated program to contaminate political discourse and bolster the army’s power in Brazil. It is your perfect weekend read!  

Thanks for reading and see you next Friday

Natalia Antelava

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