Vaccine apartheid and the trouble with dating an anti-lockdown conspiracy theorist

Natalia Antelava


Welcome to the Infodemic and a special welcome to our many new subscribers! We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our lives. Below are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

Russia and China are racing ahead of the West in terms of global vaccine distribution and scoring diplomatic points along the way. This week President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan was the latest leader to get on the phone with Xi Jinping and then praise him for offering help to access immunizations. (Tajikistan has not received any actual vaccines yet). Meanwhile, several current and former officials from Latin American countries talked to Reuters, comparing the challenges of negotiating with multinational pharmaceutical companies to the ease of buying vaccines directly from Sputnik V suppliers. 

Russian and Chinese vaccines are likely to generate more noise than immunity, as their overseas shipments tend to be very small, according to Axios. That’s not always true. Take Serbia: China sent 1.5 million doses to Belgrade enabling the government to vaccinate 11.4% of the population, ahead of every country in Europe except the UK. Chile has powered ahead of the rest of Latin America thanks to 4 million Chinese shots, 2.7 million of which have already been administered. 

While China and Russia are receiving plaudits, Pfizer has been accused of “bullying” Latin American governments in vaccine negotiations and causing delays. (For details see this excellent report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.) The Biden administration did, of course, commit $4 billion to the global Covax program, but these days vaccines, not dollars, are the currency and the West simply does not have enough to give. 

Some countries, including Canada and Estonia, have ordered surplus vaccines in order to give some away once their deliveries arrive. But, even when that happens, health officials I’ve talked to anticipate another hurdle: transferring their — as yet hypothetical — surplus vaccines to another country may be more legally and logistically complicated than anyone has anticipated. That could leave China and Russia in a comfortable lead in this world-changing competition. 


You have probably heard the term “vaccine apartheid” used to describe the growing gap between the haves and have nots in the immunization race. 

I belong to the have nots. I am writing this from Georgia — the country not the state — where the prospect of getting a shot is distant at best. Twenty per cent of the country is occupied by Russia, so, for geopolitical reasons, buying Sputnik V is not an option for the government. The nation can’t afford to buy directly from suppliers in the West but, even if it could, Georgia is limited in what and how it can negotiate bilaterally because it has signed up to Covax, a global vaccination program spearheaded by the World Health Organization. 

Covax is built on the idea of giving smaller and poorer countries collective purchasing power and bilateral deals are discouraged, because they leave poorer countries behind. While some countries in Africa and South America are now finally getting their first Covax shipments, Georgia isn’t because it’s not low-income enough to make the priority list. 

Georgia is in vaccine limbo. So are 129 other countries in the world that are yet to administer a single dose. That’s 2.5 billion people. Just 10 countries account for 75% of Covid-19 vaccines administered worldwide, according to Global Justice Now

The only upside of this situation — and a dubious one, at that — is that anti-vaxxers have gone quiet. Our new global Covid-19 class system definitely makes vaccine hesitancy a bit of a “coronavirus First World” problem. Here are three examples to illustrate the point: 

  • In December China announced plans to inoculate 50 million people by February, but it is falling short, according to Bloomberg vaccine tracker. Vaccine hesitancy is one reason. Health workers in Beijing are among the country’s most resistant groups. More than a quarter say they would hesitate to be immunized. 
  • So far 4% of Russians have been inoculated. According to a new survey by Levada Center, the country’s leading pollster, 62% say they are not ready to receive the Sputnik V vaccine. The same survey shows that 64% believe that the coronavirus was created as a biological weapon. 
  • Anyone with residency rights can get vaccinated in the United Arab Emirates, but not everyone wants to. Now a number of Emirati businesses, including cafes, restaurants and even a driving school in Dubai are offering discounts for people who can prove that they have been immunized. 

Our reporter in the U.K., which has vaccinated more people than any other European country, found the streets of her London borough littered with anti-vaccine leaflets. This led her into a strange conspiracy-filled world. Don’t miss her piece — it’s a great, though troubling, read. Below is a conspiracist love story that she stumbled upon in the course of her research.


I met Mark, 51, at an anti-lockdown protest in Bishop’s Park, west London, last weekend. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, alternative theories about the virus have taken over his life. “I used to scuba dive and before that I restored classic cars, but I walked away from those things,” he told me. 

Mark beliefs are based around a self-fulfilling prophecy. He believes that the world is controlled by a deep state dedicated to the manipulation and exploitation of the global population. As far as he is concerned, any evidence to the contrary — such as peer-reviewed scientific papers about the virus — is bogus and just offers proof of the conspiracy. 

As he put it: “I wouldn’t wipe my arse with the British Medical Journal.” 

People in his life stopped talking to him after he told them about his anti-vaccine beliefs. “I’ve had a lot of arguments with family and friends – they’re completely compliant,” he added. 

But then he met a woman at an anti-lockdown demonstration. “We shared so much knowledge and understanding,” he said. “It planted the seeds of finding answers to things.” They bonded over their beliefs, went to more rallies together and became a couple. 

But it didn’t take long for the conspiracy theories to start closing in. “We tried to go out, and not mention Covid, or the protests,” he said. 

It didn’t work. 

“One night, all she wanted to do was watch alt-right news videos. I said, ‘Can’t we just watch TV, or listen to some music?’ But it had consumed her. She took me well beyond my limit.”

The relationship didn’t work out and, now, Mark is trying hard to live more in the offline world.

“I do sometimes think, ‘I’m not going to look anything up this weekend,’” he said. 

He still goes to protests, though. Afterwards, he likes to take a long walk through the streets of London, to decompress from the day.

And that’s it from our team for this week. If you would like more on deepening worldwide vaccine inequality, I really recommend  Global Justice Now. It’s a fantastic resource. 

Many thanks to Coda’s Masho Lomashvili, Mariam Kiparoidze, Mariia Pankova, Tania Torocheshnikova and Erica Hellerstein for contributing to today’s Infodemic. And many thanks to you for sending in comments, questions and story tips. We always want more, so keep them coming. 

And as always, there is plenty more for you at

Cherish the vaccine, if you can get your hands on it, and see you next week. 

Natalia Antelava