Infodemic: Madagascar children forced to take fake Covid-19 cure; global vaccine campaigns in crisis

Natalia Antelava


Welcome! We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. Today, we go from Lebanon to Indonesia and Madagascar, as we explore narratives — both real and fake — that have caught our attention and deserve yours. 

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“We are back to the stone age,” a friend from Lebanon wrote to me yesterday. “No oil, no gas, no food, no money. It’s going to be a hard winter.”  And now, on top of the pandemic and a near-total economic collapse, the nation’s trash crisis — a problem that has had some Band-Aid fixes over the past couple of years, but never been properly solved — is set to spill over again. The state is falling apart, public services are failing and, earlier this week, 131 workers contracted to a private waste-management firm were diagnosed with the virus, forcing the company to quarantine its entire workforce.

There has been an alarming drop in the number of children who are receiving life-saving vaccines around the world. A joint survey by the World Health Organization and UNICEF has found that the likelihood that a child born today will get all the needed vaccines by the time she reaches the age of five is less than 20 percent. The pandemic is also threatening at least 30 measles vaccination campaigns, which could result in further outbreaks in 2020 and beyond. “We cannot trade one health crisis for another,” said UNICEF’s executive director Henrietta Fore. 

Meanwhile in Mexico, a fake article about the WHO has said that the organization “considers pedophilia as normal.” The link was shared nearly 6,000 times. The piece also said that the “WHO has become an avid advocate for the left” and argued against sex education. The most loyal Infodemic readers among you might remember that, a month or so ago, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro came out with similar statements. Back then, we explained how we traced the origins of these claims back to the Kremlin. Interesting to see them pop up again in Mexico, and a reminder of how some lies are stickier than others. 

And in Indonesia, officials are hailing locally grown eucalyptus as a cure for Covid-19. Reportedly inspired by the unproven “virus blocker” chemical badges we’ve been covering, Indonesia’s minister of agriculture has now patented his own natural version: a necklace containing eucalyptus, which he wears to parliamentary meetings. Politicians critical of the minister say that they fear being bullied, should they question the necklace’s efficacy. However, a researcher in the nation’s department of agriculture has warned Indonesians that the product is “not a magic amulet.”  

Indonesia’s eucalyptus story is similar to Madagascar’s Covid Organics, an herbal preparation that the country’s President Andry Rajoelina has been pushing to both the country’s citizens and other African states. Isobel Cockerell has dug up more on it below, so keep reading.

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Two politicians in Madagascar have died from Covid-19 and 25 more have tested positive. Antananarivo, the nation’s capital, is also once again under lockdown, following a spike in cases. 

But nevermind. President Rajoelina is continuing his campaign to promote what he promises is “the green-gold cure” – an unproven herbal concoction named Covid Organics. 

The drink contains the plant artemisinin, which is a common treatment for malaria, but there is no evidence that it works against the coronavirus. Nonetheless, Madagascar has already shipped thousands of doses to more than 20 African and Caribbean countries, started clinical trials for an injectable version, and even handed out bottles free to schoolchildren, who were told they would face expulsion if they didn’t take it. 

The outcry began not when the kids were given an unproven medicine, but when the country’s education minister proposed ordering  $2million worth of candy and lollipops to help them deal with the bitter taste.

Rajoelina insists that if the product had been produced elsewhere, it would have been a global phenomenon by now. “If it weren’t Madagascar, but a European country that had discovered the remedy Covid-Organics, would there be so many doubts? I do not think so,” he told foreign reporters.

Social media rumors and conspiracy theories about the drink have been rife. One falsely claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a million bottles. Another suggested that the World Health Organization attempted to bribe Rajoelina to poison and destroy his stock of Covid-Organics, because it didn’t want Madagascar to have a cure for the disease. 

This barrage of disinformation is contributing to an overwhelming sense of fear, according to Lee Mwiti, chief editor at the Johannesburg-based AfricaCheck, which has been debunking some of these claims.

“The Covid Organics story had many classic elements of misinformation, much like the tentacles of an octopus,” he said. “People sought out information that promised to help make sense of the upheaval. Unfortunately, a lot of this was untested and unverified information about Covid-Organics.”

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