The Infodemic: The not-so-fake news of the second wave, big lesson from Sweden and the story of Doctor Dick Longballs

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back, and a special welcome to our new subscribers. 

We are tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation and how it’s shaping the pandemic response. If you’ve enjoyed the Infodemic so far, here are three simple things you can do to help: 

In today’s Infodemic, the not-so-fake news of the second wave, the virus of hatred, and what precisely is that “Swedish model” everyone is talking about? Then, last but not least, the incredible story of Dr. Dick Longballs (yes, you read that right). Let’s dive in…


Despite Dr Antony Fauci describing it as “inevitable,” Donald Trump has said it is “fake news.” But, as U.S. states and countries around the world attempt to open up, it’s clear that the second wave is fast becoming a reality. 

Covid-19 has now resurfaced in Wuhan, where authorities have recorded a new outbreak and are now planning to test the city’s entire 11-million-strong population. 

Lebanon is locking down again. After making plans to reopen, the country has experienced a surge of cases, forcing the government into another four-day shutdown.

South Korea is postponing the opening of schools amid a fresh outbreak that began in the capital’s nightclubs. 

Let’s pause here, because while the new outbreaks have been widely reported, the accompanying wave of hate and homophobia deserves more attention. 

Here’s what you need to know: 

  • Last week, a Covid-19-positive person visited a few clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district 
  • Media in Korea have been describing them as “gay clubs” — which is accurate, but as some commentators have pointed out, also “irrelavant to the issue” 
  • “I want to throw bombs at them” and “I hope all gays in Itaewon die,” are just a couple among dozens of comments filling up the online space in South Korea 
  • Korean LGBTQ activists are worried about their already marginalized community. One individual has said that they “feel like the media is encouraging people to throw rocks” at them

It’s not just the LGBTQ community and not only in South Korea. Human Rights Watch is calling on all governments to take “urgent steps” to prevent racism and xenophobia during the pandemic. The UN Secretary General has talked about “the virus of hate” spreading through the world. 

  • The “pandemic is also a global crisis of social confidence, confusion, anxiety,” says Polish professor Rafal Pankowski in a story (in Polish) for Gazeta Wyborza, which describes the rise of hatred towards Asians in Poland as “unprecedented” 
  • The same paper has an interesting take on the rise of the far-right in Germany and its role in protests against lockdown restrictions: “Slogans once only heard during anti-refugee protests in Eastern Germany are now being shouted in Alexanderplatz in downtown Berlin.” 

German lawmakers are also worried that these protests, which took place in several of the nation’s cities, will be used to spread far-right and anti-vaccine ideologies. But lockdown, not refugees, was the reason people took to the streets. 

A friend of mine in Berlin, who is neither an anti-vaxxer nor a xenophobe, said he considered joining in — he couldn’t, owing to personal circumstances — because “we need to open up more quickly. We need to follow the Swedish model.”

As governments around the world wrestle with how to ease restrictions without causing the virus to come surging back, he is not the only one looking at Sweden, where throughout this crisis: 

  • Primary schools remained open 
  • As did its borders 
  • Few have worn face masks in public 

Depending on who you ask, Sweden’s controversial strategy has been either hailed as an example for others to follow or dismissed as no strategy at all. Coda’s Gautama Mehta reports on why it’s actually neither. Read on.


Last week, I attended a press briefing by Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist in charge of Sweden’s Covid-19 response. He explained that his country’s strategy is tailored to the pandemic’s particular local characteristics, Sweden’s social democratic welfare state and the high level of trust that exists in the country between the government and citizens.

The cornerstone of the approach is asking Swedes to voluntarily undertake social distancing and to isolate themselves at the first sign of symptoms.

Staying home from work with the beginnings of what could be just a mild flu is an easier ask if, as in Sweden, the government ensures that you will be given paid sick leave.

A major hurdle in global responses to the pandemic has been the way that underfunded healthcare systems have quickly become overwhelmed. This hasn’t happened in Sweden, where Tegnell said hospitals have been fully staffed and that at no point have fewer than 20% of beds been available.

One flashpoint that has prompted widespread criticism of Sweden’s response has been the country’s high death rate in comparison to its Nordic neighbors. 

But Tegnell said most of these deaths were among elderly people clustered in retirement homes, where hygiene standards were insufficient to handle the crisis, laying the blame squarely on inadequate protection of the people living in these facilities.

It’s a misunderstanding of Sweden’s approach to describe it as a “herd immunity” policy, which would require a majority of the population to become immune. The goal, Tegnell said, is to keep the level of infections down.

Tegnell did, however, estimate that some 25% of the Swedish population may now be immune to the virus, and credited this for a recent decline in the number of cases. 

He also predicted that having immunity in some portion of the population would greatly mitigate an eventual second wave of infections — a benefit that countries with stricter lockdowns now may not enjoy.

Big takeaway: Sweden’s approach is possible not only because Swedes are responsible and conscientious, but because Sweden is a social democracy with a generous welfare state. Herd immunity, if achieved, would be a byproduct.


At the beginning of this newsletter I promised you the story of Dr. Dick Longballs. Here it is:

According to an article I spotted, Dr. Longballs hails from Connecticut, where he works at the Virology Research Center in Hartford, developing a vaccine against Covid-19. He recently discovered a type of blood that contains special particles that act as coronavirus antibodies. This special blood is found only among people of Georgia — the country, not the state. 

Someone at the desk of a publication named must have had a lot of fun coming up with the name of this fictitious doctor for their completely made up story. 

Before the myth was busted, the article about Dr. Longballs was shared over 22,000 times on Facebook alone. I imagine that contributed to the myth of genetic superiority and the spread of the “virus of hate” that the UN has warned us all about.

For a lot less imaginative, but real news, check out this story on how the rush of scientists to publish Covid-19 research fuels disinformation.

Thank you for reading and see you on Friday!