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Western vaccine myths are thriving in Africa

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Fears for Mexico, China’s pandemic blockbuster and Russian pilots demand foreign shots

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Mexico is battling an increase in delta variant cases — and a collective sense of pandemic amnesia. This week, the country recorded its biggest rise in Covid-19 infections since February, according to health ministry data, bringing the country’s total number of cases to 2,604,711 and its deaths to 235,277. The government’s pandemic response has been defined by inaction and denial. It has undercounted coronavirus deaths (some estimates place the real figure at nearly double that recorded), resisted ordering shutdowns during a second wave at the end of 2020 and kept its borders open to foreign visitors, without requesting testing or quarantines. Now, beaches and boulevards are packed with summer revelers. “But the forgetting doesn’t mean it didn’t happen — or can’t happen again, soon,” reads a recent Bloomberg piece. “Variants of the virus are devastating parts of Latin America, and indications are that Mexico might not escape another wave.”

In China, a new disaster blockbuster, based on the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, is topping the box office charts. So far “Chinese Doctors” has made 548 million yuan ($84 million). Made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, the movie makes no mention of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who died of Covid-19 — and the omission hasn’t escaped Chinese social media users. “Thank you to all the Chinese doctors for working hard for Wuhan and Hubei,’” wrote one reviewer on the Douban social networking site on Monday. “And thank you to those doctors with surnames that are not convenient to mention in the movie.”

In Almaty, Kazakhstan, the police detained doctors and nurses from three medical centers for falsifying PCR tests and vaccine certificates this week. It’s not an isolated incident. Earlier this month, authorities apprehended physicians in three different regions for handing out fake vaccine certificates. This comes as the country grapples with a third wave of coronavirus infections, with daily cases topping 4,000. Yet, vaccine uptake remains low: only around 2.5 million of the country’s 18.7 population million have received a full course of two shots.

Speaking of vaccines, in Russia, pilots working from one of Moscow’s airports asked Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to allow foreign-produced Covid-19 shots into the country. Representatives of a flight crew union wrote an official letter to Mishustin on July 8, complaining that, since Russian vaccines have not been recognized internationally, they are forced to “continuously take PCR tests,” despite having been inoculated at home. The government has yet to process the request.

Ghana, meanwhile, is battling a third wave of coronavirus infections and a misinformation landscape with roots in the West. I talked to a local fact-checker about the foreign-amplified anti-vaccine narratives spreading in the country. 

Western vaccine myths are thriving in Africa

In April, a disturbing 10-minute video began to circulate in Ghana on WhatsApp.

A white woman with thick, dark-rimmed glasses faced the camera and laid out what she alleged was the true intent of coronavirus vaccines in Africa: a plot to eradicate the population.

“No country has developed a vaccine for the coronavirus yet,” she declared. “They have sent poison. A white man is sending a fake vaccine. They want to wipe you guys out.”

The video was widely shared, prompting a Ghanian fact-checking platform to look into its origins. Besides debunking the woman’s claims about vaccines, GhanaFact learned that the footage originated in Australia. It was a Western anti-vaccine conspiracy deliberately designed to make inroads in Africa — part of a pattern that managing editor Rabiu Alhassan has observed throughout the pandemic.

Last week, the World Health Organization announced that the African continent was in the midst of its worst pandemic moment yet, with a skyrocketing caseload driven by the delta variant. As Ghana faces a resurgence of cases, Alhassan has his eye on Ghana’s anti-vaccine information ecosystem and whether it will continue to be influenced by Western narratives.

Over the past year, GhanaFact has repeatedly debunked anti-vaccine conspiracies that have spread across the country on WhatsApp, but that can be traced back to Europe and the U.S. Alhassan has also seen Western anti-vaccine misinformation translated from English into local languages and promoted on the messaging platform. Though the export of North American and European anti-vaccine misinformation to regions like Africa has received little attention, an in-depth investigation by First Draft News highlighted several Western-amplified narratives spreading in West Africa, including conspiracy theories that Bill Gates and the World Health Organization are using vaccines to depopulate Africa.

“The narrative we’ve been trying to counter in the last year or two is that there’s no grand agenda to wipe out Africans,” Alhassan said.

The depopulation argument has roots in the dark history of colonialism in the region, as well as more recent vaccination campaigns gone wrong. In 2015, an Ebola vaccine trial in Ghana by the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson was suspended after local residents protested they were being used as “guinea pigs.”

Though Ghana was among the first countries to receive a vaccine shipment from the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, only about 4% of the population has been immunized and a March 2021 survey found that up to two-thirds of Ghanians would refuse the vaccine if offered one.

“I think the most straightforward approach we’ve adopted is to go for what’s the scientific position on some of the claims,” Alhassan said. “​​If we see a claim that says that the vaccine is not safe, it has been developed to wipe out Africans, we go to the heart of whether the vaccine is safe or not.” 

Coda Story’s Mariam Kiparoidze, Isobel Cockerell and Alexandra Tyan contributed to this edition. 

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