Infodemic: Doctors protest in Iran and Russia; coronavirus confusion in Mexico

Natalia Antelava


Welcome to the Infodemic. We are tracking how global disinformation shapes the world emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. Today — from doctors’ protests in Iran to coronavirus confusion in Mexico — here are a few narratives, both real and fake, that have caught our attention and deserve yours.

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People who believe conspiracy theories about Covid-19 are more likely to have broken key lockdown rules, finds a new study from King’s College London. For example, 38% of those who think there is no hard evidence that Covid-19 really exists have had family and friends visit them at home, compared with 12% of those who take the disease seriously. The study also states that those who believe conspiracy theories are more likely to get their information from social media. 

Overwhelmed hospital staff in Iran’s southwestern city of Ahvaz staged a walkout to shame members of the public into wearing masks. Dressed in hazmat suits, the doctors walked through the local market calling on people to start taking Covid-19 seriously. Iran is not the only place where doctors are resorting to protest. Our Russia editor Katerina Fomina was in Novosibirsk, Siberia, this weekend, where she says that almost everything has reopened, even though doctors say they are overwhelmed. In June, 30% of staff at the city’s Hospital No. 3, which has been given over entirely to coronavirus patients, took vacation and sick leave in protest over the hospital’s lack of medicines and protective equipment. Both Russia and Iran are recording some of their highest death numbers since the pandemic began, each averaging around 170 a day.

Two Brazilian doctors have falsely claimed on YouTube that a deworming drug has been used to bring Covid-19 under control in Africa. Videos by Alvaro Galvão and Rafael Freitas, which have attracted a total of 336,175 views, were debunked by the fact-checking agency Comprova. We’ve reported on the enthusiastic adoption of ivermectin as a prophylactic against the coronavirus by Brazilian politicians. Much of the scientific support for the treatment seems to originate in a since-withdrawn preprint by US company Surgisphere, which was also responsible for the unreliable data behind The Lancet’s hydroxychloroquine scandal.

Mexico is competing with Brazil for the title of Latin America’s coronavirus epicenter. The country now has the fourth-highest coronavirus death toll in the world. Meanwhile, the government’s messaging on the pandemic could not be more confusing. Rachel Sherman explains below, so keep reading. 

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SPOTLIGHT: MEXICO • Rachel Sherman

This weekend, the Mexican government failed to update its weekly coronavirus “stoplight” map, rolled out in May as a guide for when states can end their lockdowns. The color-coded map is confusing when it is kept up to date. Now, it doesn’t even reflect the correct data. 

The nation’s Deputy Health Minister blamed states failing to provide the correct numbers. “We can’t present a national stoplight map when there are gaps in our information,” Hugo Lopez-Gatell said in a press conference on Friday. But state governors have laid the responsibility for the map’s shortcomings on federal authorities.  

This dispute is just the latest illustration of deeply confusing health messaging, amid surging deaths in Mexico. 

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is the country’s denialist-in-chief. Early in the pandemic, he held a news conference to show off two amulets, which he said, along with his honesty and anti-corruption stance, would protect him against the virus. The president does not wear a face mask or practice social distancing, because he is a “good person.” 

Obrador’s home secretary doesn’t wear a mask, either. Instead, Sánchez Cordero says that she uses “citrus-based nanomolecules” to protect herself. According to her, just a few drops is enough to destroy viruses.

While politicians bicker, independent researchers estimate that official national coronavirus figures are underreported, to the tune of tens of thousands of deaths. Health workers are especially vulnerable, with a death rate five to six times higher than that of medical personnel in the U.S., the U.K, and China.

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  • Doctor by day, anti-disinfo warrior by night. Here’s Casey Coombs with the fascinating story of how a Yemeni medic in Germany is fighting his homeland’s Covid-19 crisis. 
  • We’ve reported on Russia building one of the world’s largest facial recognition systems. Now, Coda’s Mariam Kiparoidze follows up on how the country’s embattled opposition is trying to turn the surveillance tide

Thank you for reading this newsletter, and many thanks to Isobel Cockerell and Gautama Mehta for contributing.  

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See you on Friday,