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Germany’s Covid-19 rebellion goes pop and a manhunt in Belgium

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: a far-right German R&B hit, bizarre events near Brussels and North Korea’s war on cats

“Ich mach nicht da mit” (“I am not doing it”).  So goes an anti-lockdown song by a German far-right conspiracy theorist that topped Amazon charts in the country this week. The R&B singer Xavier Naidoo’s track was swiftly removed from YouTube, Spotify and Apple music for violating community standards. But, because Amazon was slower to react, thousands of Naidoo’s Telegram fans swarmed to the platform, pushing it to the top of the charts. The song, which encourages resistance against the “corona dictatorship” and describes vaccines as “poison” also provides a perfect soundtrack to a bizarre situation unfolding next door. 

THE BELGIAN MANHUNT

I have been watching in fascination as a Netflix-worthy saga plays out in Belgium. The nation’s army and police have deployed hundreds of officers, with dogs and mine clearance equipment, and closed a major highway as they comb through Hoge Kempen — a 12,000 hectare national park east of Brussels — in search of a 46-year-old career soldier named Jurgen Conings. 

Conings is heavily armed. Belgian police believe he robbed a military base and is in possession of an array of weapons, including anti-tank rocket launchers and a sub-machine gun. Some of the arsenal was found in his abandoned car. 

Dutch and German police are on standby, in case Conings attempts to cross the border. Belgian authorities say that he poses an “acute threat” to the public and, in particular, a well-known epidemiologist named Marc van Ranst, whom he has threatened. In his last message, Conings said that he no longer wants to live in a world run by “politicians and virologists.”

The whole story is a fascinating and extreme illustration of how Covid-19 has provided far-right sympathizers with a new cause to rally around. Conings has previously served in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and was known to colleagues for his far-right tendencies, including racist comments and threats on social media. At the start of the pandemic, he appears to have become involved with the anti-lockdown group Virus Waanzin (Virus Madness). 

With his extensive army training, Conings is proving difficult to find. Meanwhile, as police officers scour the woods, supporters are rallying online. On Tuesday, Facebook shut down a 50,000-strong Coning fan group. 

“People who make him a movie hero, or a Rambo character are mistaken,” said Minister of the Interior Annelies Verlinden. 

But his allies fired back: “Jürgen Conings symbolizes a system that has failed,” wrote Kimberley Wuyts, one of 2,500 (and counting) who have swarmed to Telegram after being kicked off Facebook. 

One nationalist politician accused Van Ranst of “being a joke” and said that his lockdown recommendations should never have been taken seriously by public officials.  

The virologist fired back. “On Telegram, you can see your voters sprout live on the soil that you have fertilized for years. These are the radicalized people who now support a terrorist and continuously threaten/insult me,” Van Ranst tweeted from a safe house, where he and his family have been kept by the Belgian authorities since the manhunt began.  

PAKISTAN’S NEW SHOT by Ramsha Jahangir

Pakistan has joined a growing list of nations — including Cuba, Japan, Taiwan and Kazakhstan — that can boast a homegrown Covid-19 vaccine. The main aim of PakVac, developed with the help of the Chinese vaccine company CanSinoBio, is to reduce Pakistan’s dependence on imported shots, but officials hope that it will also help to fight rampant vaccine hesitancy. 

Anti-vaccine propaganda has been a huge impediment to Pakistan’s pandemic efforts. Shots are available in but just under 5% of the country’s 216 million population have received one. One reason: extremist groups have circulated theories that vaccination campaigns are a Western plot aimed at sterilizing Muslims.  

Will people be more accepting of a local vaccine? That’s the assumption Pakistani officials are making. PakVac’s rollout is filled with patriotism. The campaign is named “Pakistan First” and packaging features a prominent national flag.

But, elsewhere, domestic vaccines seem to have had the opposite effect. “The Indian Covaxin actually increased hesitancy, due to a lack of efficacy data and premature approval, followed by reports of doctors refusing to take the local vaccine,” says Ali Abbas Ahmadi, a vaccine misinformation researcher at First Draft News.

Similarly, according to a poll published this week by independent research organization the Levada Center,  62% of people in Russia — the first country to approve a domestic vaccine last August — are still hesitating over receiving a Sputnik V shot. 

DENIAL IN TAJIKISTAN by Mariam Kiparoidze

The government of Tajikistan has put its head back in the sand, just as it did last year when it spent weeks denying there were any Covid-19 cases in the country. A World Health Organization visit to the Central Asian state last May finally forced authorities to admit the presence of the coronavirus, but now official numbers are once again at zero. That does not tally with the anonymous accounts of doctors, who told our friends at Eurasianet that they have patients with coronavirus symptoms, but that testing them is pointless because all tests come back negative anyway. And here’s the reason they won’t say it openly: last week, the head of the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Surveillance Service in the northwestern Sughd region said a man was quarantined because of Covid-19 symptoms. This week, he was fired. 

CATS IN NORTH KOREA By Isobel Cockerell  

As all fellow cat owners will concur, our feline friends got us through the pandemic. Not so for a North Korean family living near the Chinese border, who were thrown into a Covid-19 isolation facility this week for the outrageous crime of owning a cat. Paranoid authorities had ordered locals to “catch and eliminate pigeons and cats,” under the false impression that they could spread the virus by crossing into China and back. North Koreans dutifully shot down birds flying over the border, while officials patrolled homes in search of illicit kitties. The family reportedly told the officers that their pet had died, but then it was spotted wandering near the heavily militarized border fence. Guards failed to capture the cat, but its owners now have to stay in quarantine for three weeks. 

And that’s it from our team for today. 

Natalia Antelava is Coda’s Editor in Chief. Ramsha Jahangir is Coda’s editorial intern. 

Isobel Cockerell and Mariam Kiparoidze are reporters. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter straight in your inbox.

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