Infodemic: Uyghurs forced into labor during pandemic, apocalypse in Serbia and bad jokes in Kazakhstan

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back to the Infodemic, and a special welcome to all of our new subscribers. We are tracking how global disinformation shapes the world emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Today, from revelations about Uyghurs forced labor during the pandemic to the blood of the former Kazakh leader, here are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have caught our attention and deserve yours. 

A Coda Story investigation has revealed that, as China’s Covid-19 outbreak hit its peak, Beijing ramped up its campaign of persecution against Uyghurs, a Muslim minority from the northwest of the country. As cities across China entered strict lockdowns, authorities in Xinjiang province intensified forced labor transfers and shuttled groups of Uyghur men and women to locations far from home, to work on production lines, under constant surveillance. It is difficult to establish the exact number of people affected. We tracked multiple groups of Uyghurs – one of 800, one of 500, and several smaller ones – being sent to factories across China. Experts we interviewed believe that the true number of Uyghurs forced into labor programs during the pandemic runs into the thousands. The UN says that up to a million Uyghurs have been detained in government camps since 2016.

How we got the story:
In the spring, Coda reporter Isobel Cockerell, who has covered the plight of Uyghurs extensively, got a telephone call from Zumret Dawut, a 38-year-old Uyghur woman living in Washington D.C. Dawut managed to escape Xinjiang after spending two months in its camps. As the virus gained traction, Dawut began collecting video footage from Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, showing crowds of Uyghurs being packed onto buses, cars and trains.

We spent weeks looking through dozens of videos, geolocating and verifying them by cross-referencing footage with local state media reports and propaganda campaigns. We also interviewed Uyghurs, whose families were victims of forced labor schemes, and experts from all over the world who have been tracking the programs. 

What we established: 

  • The pandemic provided useful cover for China to accelerate its program of oppression against the Uyghur people. The videos of hundreds of individuals being tightly packed onto charter flights and train carriages stand in stark contrast to the tough lockdown measures enforced elsewhere in China at the time
  • This is not slave labor, it is forced labor, in which Uyghur people have no choice but to work under tight surveillance, live in compounds that they are often not allowed to leave, and take propaganda classes by night. Advertisements on Baidu indicate they are paid, with wages offered at 13 yuan ($1.83) an hour  
  • Our reporting shows that Xinjiang is moving into a period of “re-education 2.0” — moving Uyghurs out of the indoctrination camp system and onto the factory floor

Why this matters 
The forced labor schemes are part of a system of indoctrination, detention and control used against Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities. On Monday, Uyghur exiles urged the International Criminal Court to investigate claims of genocide in Xinjiang. Beijing refers to the labor program as a “poverty alleviation” initiative, and says that the  crackdown on Muslim minorities is a “vocational training” program, designed to stamp out extremism.

You can read Isobel Cockerrell’s investigation here. And click here to support our journalism. Your contributions help us keep our journalism free and accessible to all.

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Doctors in Serbia are warning of a Covid-19 “apocalypse,” as cases surge and they are forced to ask patients to provide their own medicine in Sandzak, a majority-Bosniak region in the southwest of the country. Meanwhile, the government in Belgrade faces accusations of dramatic underreporting of its national infection and death rates, and massive anti-lockdown protests. Here’s Coda’s Katia Patin on pandemic unrest and the violent police response.

Chinese and Russian state media are reporting on a mysterious outbreak of pneumonia in Kazakhstan, which is apparently “more dangerous than coronavirus.” Kazakhstan says it’s fake news. The Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan was first to publish a statement urging its citizens to be cautious about an outbreak that “might be deadlier than Covid-19.” It was picked up by Chinese and then Russian state-run media outlets, another illustration of a growing pandemic-era synergy between Russian and Chinese propaganda. 

Staying in Kazakhstan, when the country announced its intention to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, the satirical Russian-language website Panorama said it would be made with the blood of the country’s former ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, who tested positive in June. The Kazakh government did not get the joke. Nazarbayev handed power over to a successor in 2019, but he remains a near-sacred figure in the country. The government described the story as “fake news.” Here is the piece, in Russian. Don’t try to access it if you happen to be in Kazakhstan. The site has been blocked. 

In Somalia, a journalist was detained by police for four days for writing two Facebook posts that criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. He was released on bail, but warned against “pursuing any further critical commentary, including on Covid-19.” Abdiaziz Ahmed Gurbiye, the chief editor of the independent Goobjoog Media Group was subsequently charged with spreading fake news and disrespecting authorities. 

And here’s an odd story from South Africa, where for the first two months of the lockdown authorities banned the sale of alcohol. Why? Because people who drink alcohol allegedly “clog up” the healthcare system. The South African police minister claimed that 34,000 hospital beds were occupied by people with alcohol-related illnesses. Earlier this week, Africa Check fact-checked the number and found no data to support the claim. 

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Red Crescent societies in Tunisia and Libya are reporting an increase in drownings on the shores of North Africa. Warmer weather and relaxed Covid-19 lockdowns are thought to be behind a spike in the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Many are not surviving the perilous journey, with 20 per cent more people estimated to have died in June this year than last, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). 

Hungry for more? Coda’s Gautama Mehta explains how Covid-19 is changing the way we treat asylum seekers. 

That’s all, for today. Coda’s Rachel Sherman, Katia Patin and Mariam Kiparoidze all contributed to this Infodemic. 

Thanks for reading, and see you on Monday, 


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