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Confusing messages from Washington and the authoritarian vaccine drive

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world.

MIXED MESSAGES FROM WASHINGTON

This week, U.S. health authorities reversed their position on masks, advising fully vaccinated people to wear them indoors if they live in areas with significant viral spread.  

The decision comes days after the White House refused to release numbers of post-vaccination breakthrough Covid-19 infections, insisting that they are “extremely rare.” Speaking during a recent CNN Town Hall, President Joe Biden also said, “You are not going to get Covid if you are vaccinated.” Turns out that neither statement was true. 

I write this with what feels like a 300-pound gorilla sitting on my chest and a pretty foggy brain. (Can you tell?). I am fully vaccinated and, yet, down with symptomatic Covid-19. I am also surrounded by vaccinated friends and family — shots ranging from Pfizer to Sinopharm — who have recently caught the virus.

It’s true that, after having received vaccines, we are much less likely to develop complications or die, but internal CDC documents leaked to the Washington Post this morning show that our cases are not “extremely rare” at all.

They describe the “daunting task the CDC faces. It must continue to emphasize the proven efficacy of the vaccines at preventing severe illness and death, while acknowledging milder breakthrough infections may not be so rare after all, and that vaccinated individuals are transmitting the virus.”

The data is now expected to be published fully, but has the damage already been done?  This mixed messaging is sure to further hinder the already flagging U.S. vaccination effort. 

THE AUTHORITARIAN APPROACH

With nearly 50% of its population vaccinated, the United States is now scrambling to figure out how to convince everyone else to get their shots. Dealing with uncooperative citizens is much easier in dictatorships, though. This week: 

  • Saudi Arabia announced that it will require vaccination certificates for access to all public transport and events, starting August 1
  • Kuwait banned unvaccinated citizens from traveling overseas 
  • President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines warned that individuals who refuse to be vaccinated might not be allowed to leave their homes, in order to reduce the spread of the delta variant
  • Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, declared that he wants 100% of the population vaccinated. To reach that goal, he banned all unvaccinated individuals from entering mosques, shops and public transport

Still, being a public health official is no fun in authoritarian nations — just take a look at Tajikistan. After President Emomali Rahmon lost his sister to the coronavirus, his three nephews expressed their grief by beating up Health Minister Jamoliddin Abdullozoda and several doctors. RFE/RL reports that Abdullozoda has been “seriously injured.” Unsurprisingly, the news has not been officially confirmed.

IN OTHER (FAKE) NEWS: 

  • A French website cataloguing businesses that do not require a “green pass,” proving full vaccination, or a negative Covid-19 test, is rapidly growing in popularity. Since we first wrote about it last week, over 500 new venues in France have signed up to the service opposing “vaccine apartheid.” Now, versions of the site have sprung up in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy.
  • A German study, which claimed to show that wearing masks increases health risks for children, was recently retracted. But that hasn’t stopped it gaining traction online. Scientists quickly scrutinized the paper in June, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatrics. The editors retracted it within three weeks, citing “fundamental concerns about the study methodology” and the “validity of the results.”
  • Social media posts being widely shared in francophone Africa claim that the presidents of Haiti, Tanzania and Burundi were “assassinated” for opposing Covid-19 vaccines — and that their murders cleared the path for mass inoculation. This is fake news reaching new levels of insanity. Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise, shot in early July, was openly pro-vaccine, and the leaders of Tanzania and Burundi were not assassinated. They died of illnesses unrelated to the coronavirus.

And, for a quick break from the never-ending pandemic, enjoy this video of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson struggling with an umbrella.

Coda Story’s Mary Steffenhagen, Sasha Tyan and Mariam Kiparoidze contributed to this edition. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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