The Infodemic: United States joins the coronavirus diplomacy race; Beijing causes political arguments in Nigeria and Iran

Natalia Antelava


Welcome! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. And yes, we’ve just changed the name of the newsletter because it is now obvious that it’s not just the pandemic that is changing our world, but the infodemic that accompanies it.

Here are a few narratives – real and fake – that have caught our attention:

The Nigerian government and doctors are caught up in a massive argument after the government invited a group of Chinese medics to help the country fight Covid-19.

The Nigerian Medical Association responded with “great dismay and utter disappointment,” saying the decision was demeaning to Nigerian doctors and harmful to the country’s national security.

The controversy was at least partially sparked by rumors circulating on WhatsApp and Facebook across the continent that Chinese aid to Italy was contaminated with coronavirus. In response, Nigeria’s Center for Disease Control has tweeted: “NO, there is no evidence that the kits are contaminated.”

Background: Following in the footsteps of China and Russia, the United States is now stepping up its “coronavirus diplomacy” efforts. Both Beijing and Moscow have leveraged their coronavirus aid into propaganda campaigns.

Washington is well behind but now doubling its funding for Covid-19 relief programs around the world. In a not-so-subtle dig at China and Russia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised “high-quality, transparent and meaningful assistance.”

Nigeria is not the only country where coronavirus diplomacy is causing internal arguments. Keep reading to find out about an unusual controversy unfolding in Iran.

In the last newsletter, we reported on how Covid-19 disinformation sparked a new wave of discrimination against Muslims in India.

The situation seems to be getting worse. We are now seeing reports of villages and towns around the country banning entry to Muslim vendors and WhatsApp rumors claiming it is unsafe to accept money from Muslims.

The Centre for Policy Research’s Asim Ali writes in The Print that all this adds up to “a new form of concerted, deliberate economic marginalization” directed against Indian Muslims—and warns of the consequences if this economic discrimination becomes widespread:

“Hindus and Muslims often live in segregated clusters in urban areas, but they are intertwined by the web of economic transactions. 

If that goes away, we are looking at pockets of apartheid in our country.”


One country that will definitely not receive any of the new US aid is Iran.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, says “We don’t need charity from @realDonaldTrump – who’s forced to buy ventilators from sources he’s sanctioned.” Presumably, Zarif is referring to Russia.

Iran, which remains the region’s epicenter, has so far relied on China for pandemic aid, but that relationship hit a bump when the Chinese ambassador in Tehran and the spokesman of Iran’s Health Ministry got into a public brawl earlier this week.

It all started when a Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, himself a doctor, described China’s coronavirus statistics as a “bitter joke.” He made his remarks at a press conference and then in this tweet.

“Rumors cannot destroy our friendship,” responded Chang Hua, the Chinese ambassador in Tehran.

Then it snowballed.

The Chinese Ambassador and Health Ministry spokesman continued their heated exchange on Twitter, dividing Iran’s political establishment.

The hardliners took China’s side. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps issued a statement describing the health minister’s remarks as “incorrect,” “marginalized,” “against national interests,” “out of place,” and “unprofessional.”

They called not just for an apology, but also an investigation into Jahanpour’s possible motives.

The reformers retaliated, asking for the Chinese Ambassador to be summoned to the Foreign Ministry. Here’s one of my favorite tweets, from the deputy speaker of Majlis, Iran’s parliament:

“The Chinese ambassador’s arrogance about Corona should be answered. The foreign ministry should summon the ambassador. Unfortunately, our economic need for China has led us to remain silent about the chinese government’s enormous oppression of its Muslims.” 

Background: There’s plenty of mistrust to spread around in Iran. A poll conducted by Tehran’s mayor’s office found that only 27% of Tehran residents trust official statistics on coronavirus infections and deaths, 25% were not sure, and 48% said they had no trust in official numbers.

Hungry for more?

In Italy, a national task force looked into how mobile phone data could limit pandemic spread. Cecilia Butini reports for Coda on the resulting debate over privacy and data protection.

And ahead of the weekend, here are 3 videos for you:

  • A prevalent and dangerous coronavirus myth is that it only infects elites. Here is a poignant video of a Nigerian fish seller who says Covid-19 won’t touch her.
  • An excellent video from the Ohio Department of Health explains how social distancing works (for those of us who can afford it).
  • And are you familiar with the Game of Bones? Check this out, possibly the best video of the lockdown.

Have a good weekend,


P.S. It takes a village, in our case a team to bring you this newsletter. Many thanks to Coda’s Gautama Mehta for helping me out with this one and to Isobel Cockerell for introducing me to the Game of Bones