The Infodemic: nursery rhyme outrage; backlash against Germany’s Fauci; caste-based hate crimes on the rise in India

Gautama Mehta


Welcome back, and a very special welcome to all our new subscribers. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world that is emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Below are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours. Today’s newsletter is brought to you by Coda’s Gautama Mehta and Katia Patin. Make sure to sign up to get The Infodemic in your inbox every Monday and Friday.

This video of Italian schoolchildren singing a nursery rhyme about facemasks may seem cute — but some anti-mask and anti-vaccine activists were so outraged by it that they launched a campaign of online abuse. After the YouTube video was shared in anti-vaxxer Facebook groups, members began leaving comments like this one: “When they took people to gas chambers, they also sang songs.” Thousands expressed their rage at the children’s parents and teachers by “disliking” the video on YouTube and reporting it as “dangerous for minors.”

Is a surge in caste-based hate crimes being covered up by Indian authorities? In April, we reported how the pandemic has enabled violence against Dalits — people who occupy the lowest position in the Hindu caste system. A new report from The Caravan magazine reveals that such attacks have increased nearly fivefold in the southern state of Tamil Nadu during India’s lockdown. In one incident, a 24-year-old man was murdered by the family of his wife, who disapproved of their marriage, because she came from a higher caste. The situation in Tamil Nadu has received little attention, partly because the state government has not fulfilled its legal obligation to publish monthly statistics on caste atrocities since March.

Turkmenistan officially has no Covid-19 infections — yet doctors say instances of severe pneumonia, a common complication of the coronavirus, are on the riseMedical staff told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that, since the government forbids them to test for the virus or even discuss the pandemic, they cannot confirm whether the pneumonia cases are related to it, as they suspect. A World Health Organization team has been trying to visit the country since early May to assess the situation, but has not been able to get in yet. Turkmenistan’s pandemic response has been characterized by denial, repression and a lack of transparency, as this new report shows.

Germany’s Anthony Fauci faces a backlash as lockdown lifts by Katia Patin

The media-friendly face of the German government’s Covid-19 response is being hit with a wave of criticism, as the country’s economy plunges into recession.

  • Christian Drosten, who advises Chancellor Angela Merkel on the coronavirus, has endured a regular stream of death threats, but this has only intensified in recent weeks. Now, he has begun receiving strange packages at his home
  • In one case, a vial filled with yellow liquid and the note, “Drink it and you will be immune,” arrived at his front door by mail
  • His scientific reputation is also under attack. In May, one of Germany’s largest tabloids, Bild, accused Drosten of “dishonesty” in a recent study used to justify the closure of schools. Bild quoted criticism by four international academics, who all later said they were never approached by the paper for interviews

Throughout the crisis, the 48-year-old virologist has enjoyed widespread popularity, similar to Anthony Fauci in the U.S. His coronavirus podcast topped German Apple and Spotify charts for weeks. He’s also a star of internet memes, in which fans have Photoshopped his face onto the Obama campaign’s “Hope” poster and images of the Hollywood actor Jeff Goldblum, to whom he bears a passing resemblance.

Why is he being attacked? “For many, I’m the evil guy crippling the economy,” said Drosten in a recent interview with The Guardian. The German economy shrank by 2.2% in the first three months of 2020, its biggest slump since the 2009 economic crisis.

Context: As lockdown measures lift, Germany is considering the results of its coronavirus strategy. It has been largely heralded as a success, compared to other European countries. However, Drosten is increasingly finding himself on the defensive, as other prominent voices argue the lockdown was actually unnecessary.

Why this matters: Public health experts like Drosten and Fauci are finding that their celebrity status doesn’t render them immune to shifting public opinion, in the face of a continued global economic downturn.

Hungry for more?

  • Coda’s Ariam Alula recommends you read this first-person account, in which an African-American journalist reflects on the day she learned that her city’s police department had been spying on her, and other journalists connected to Black Lives Matter, for years
  • This in-depth report by a pair of anthropologists at the French National Centre for Scientific Research traces how the lockdown strategy spread across the globe in the early weeks of the pandemic

Thanks to Mariam Kiparoidze and Sasha Tyan for their help putting this newsletter together.  

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See you on Monday.