Infodemic: a new outbreak in Xinjiang, pedophilia myths in Brazil and trouble in Turkmenistan

Natalia Antelava


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

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Chinese authorities are reporting a new Covid-19 outbreak in the capital of the far northwestern Xinjiang region. The province entered “wartime mode” after its health commission reported 25 cases in Urumqi and a further case in the city of Kashgar. Authorities immediately locked down communities in the capital, banning public gatherings and implementing mass screenings. Xinjiang, home to Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslim minorities, has so far seen low coronavirus numbers. Until last week, it had reported just 76 cases and six deaths. Uyghurs living abroad worried that the figures were in fact much higher. Read our investigation into how Uyghurs have been transported across China during the pandemic to work in forced labor programs.

Vaccine disinformation is on the rise in Serbia, where Covid-19 case numbers continue to grow after the lifting of a nationwide lockdown in May. President Aleksandar Vucic says that his government is in talks with an unnamed country about acquiring a “completed” vaccine by the end of the year. He refused to identify the nation to journalists, but none of the 23 vaccines currently in clinical trials are close to that stage, according to the World Health Organization. Adding to the confusion, Serbian media outlets are reporting that Russia has completed clinical trials of a coronavirus vaccine, with mass production expected to start in August. However, the vaccine in question — developed by the Russian Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow — has only been safely tested on 38 volunteers, just passing the first very first stage of clinical trials.

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In May, we wrote about a strange Facebook post by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in which he accused the WHO of encouraging children to masturbate — a myth that originated on Russian fake news sites. Last week, we reported that it had resurfaced in Mexico.

And now: In Brazil, Bolsonaro continues to harp on this theme, tweeting without evidence last week that “the left is looking for ways to decriminalize pedophilia, transforming it into a mere disease or sexual option.” An analysis from the investigative news site Agencia Publica explains why this subject is a favorite of Bolsonaro: it tracks well with the evangelical right, a central component of his political base. The claim that the left is increasingly supportive of pedophilia was recently spread widely by far-right Christian sites, such as Gospel Prime, which was cited in a recent Brazilian congressional inquiry into fake news.

Historical context: The Brazilian right was obsessed with pedophilia long before Bolsonaro’s election. The former astrologer and far-right philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, a prominent supporter and guru of the president, published a blog post in 2002 titled “One Hundred Years of Pedophilia.” The piece described the reintroduction of the practice into modern life by Freud, and accused feminism, birth control and gay rights of helping to normalize it. The essay also defended the Catholic Church against accusations of child abuse that were then just beginning to emerge.

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Denial, secrecy and disinformation — these three words perfectly describe Turkmenistan’s approach to the coronavirus crisis. 

Across the country, mosques are closed, transportation is restricted and people are forced to wear masks. State-controlled television is broadcasting music videos that explain (link in Russian) how to wear them. But officially Covid-19 still doesn’t exist. According to the government, the reason for wearing face masks is an increase of dust particles in the air. 

“People are dying because of Covid-19, but our country doesn’t say it officially,” said Hanum Rasulova, an Turkey-based activist for the SES Turkmenia Unite movement.

Last month Rasulova, along with other Turkmen nationals living in Istanbul, began to stage street protests against their government’s pandemic response. She told me that the crisis has been compounded by the worsening economic situation and that people have reached out to her, saying, “Please help us because we are dying, we have nothing to eat, nothing to drink. We don’t have money.” 

Verifying these reports is incredibly difficult. Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated places on the planet. Its government, headed by the dictator and former dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has no tolerance for dissent. 

For months after the pandemic began, Berdymukhammedov effectively banned any mention of the coronavirus and attempts to enter the country by the WHO were delayed. The organization finally negotiated access and sent a group of experts on July 6. 

Ten days later, they issued a largely positive report, recommending enhanced testing and monitoring, but saying that the Turkmen health system was prepared to deal with the pandemic. 

But the few inside the country who dare to speak out say that a growing number of people are displaying Covid-19 symptoms. 

Some also allege that when the WHO entered Turkmenistan, hospitals stopped admitting patients reporting symptoms of pneumonia. 

“It’s really a situation where hospitals and medical staff are not admitting people,” said said Chemen Ore, a Turkmen activist in Istanbul. They were, he said, “trying to isolate them from the WHO team.” 

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It takes a village, or in our case a team to put this newsletter together. Coda Story’s Katia Patin, Gautama Mehta and Isobel Cockerell all contributed to this one. 

Thanks for reading. And see you on Friday,