Infodemic: German Covid conspiracists and a very intimate financial probe in Brazil

Natalia Antelava


Welcome, and a very special greeting to our new subscribers! We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the pandemic. This week, doctors are under new pressure in Hong Kong, surprises in Kenyan schools and a look at what was found hiding down the trousers of a Brazilian politician. Here are the narratives — both real and fake — that have caught our attention and deserve yours.

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It’s no secret that the Chinese government regularly issues propaganda directives to the media, but it is not often that the rest of us get to see them. A rare leak, verified by the China Digital Times, offers a glimpse of how Beijing handled messaging around the pandemic: 

  • In early January, as the Wuhan outbreak gathered pace, China’s state reporters and editors were cautioned: “Do not individually gather or compose news, do not hype. Conjecture is strictly prohibited.”
  • When Russia closed its border with China at the end of January, journalists were instructed to “not report without approval, no exceptions.”
  • More recently, when President Donald Trump tested positive for coronavirus, the directive from China’s Cyberspace Administration was: “Do not hype it, do not rejoice in the misfortune of others.”

And here’s a developing story from Hong Kong that also gives a taste of what life is like under Beijing’s watch. Back in February, thousands of hospital workers, doctors and nurses went on strike to demand that the government close its border with China in order to impede the spread of the virus. Eight months on, the city’s Hospital Authority has launched an inquiry to chase down those workers. One institution is resisting: a radiology manager at Princess Margaret Hospital refused to hand over the names of those who went on strike – and now the inquiry’s efforts are focused on that department. Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority has sent letters to all of its 20 radiologists – even those who were not working there at the time of the strike – demanding that they explain their absence. Doctors have been encouraged by the city’s Hospital Authority Employees Alliance to not respond to “unreasonable requests.” Meanwhile, online activists have branded the inquiry as  “cultural revolution 2020.”

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The government of Uzbekistan is installing surveillance cameras that will track and identify people not wearing masks. The program is being piloted in the country’s restive Ferghana Valley, and it should give privacy and human rights advocates, as well as people of Uzbekistan, plenty of reason to worry. In a region ruled by oppressive governments, the pandemic has given authorities a perfect excuse to increase surveillance and spending on new technologies. In August, Kazakhstan started surveilling public transportation, dispatching people whose job is to let drivers know if passengers are not wearing masks. A Kazakh journalist based in the capital, Almaty, told me recently: “The problem is, we’ll eventually get rid of Covid-19 but it will be much harder to get rid of the surveillance it introduced”. This could well apply far beyond Central Asia. 

Just like the rest of us, parents in Kenya were probably desperate for their children to go back to school. But, when classes finally restarted, things didn’t go quite as expected. Schools in the “slums” of Mombasa have reportedly “turned into drug dens.” According to Kenyan journalists, children as young as 12 have been seen injecting heroin and passed out in classrooms while under the influence. And hard drugs are not the only thing taking over Kenyan schools. Children who returned to their primary school in Kirinyaga County found their classrooms occupied by chickens. Turns out that, during the pandemic, their principal decided to turn it into a poultry farm. The school’s management told reporters it was unfortunate that it had to reopen before the birds matured and could be sold. Here’s the story, complete with a photograph of the principal and her flock!

Germany has been hailed as a relative success story for its efforts against the pandemic. But, despite — or perhaps because of — its low mortality rate, the country has witnessed the rise of a homegrown coronavirus-skeptic movement known as Querdenken. Below, Coda’s Gautama Mehta explains who they are and why they matter.

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By Gautama Mehta 

Since April, Querdenkers — German for “lateral thinkers” — have organized demonstrations  across the country against lockdown measures and mask requirements. Some of their rallies have drawn crowds in the tens of thousands. Among the movement’s most prominent members is a former preacher named Samuel Eckert. Traveling around Germany since late September on what he has called the Great Corona Info Tour, Eckert has recorded multiple YouTube videos and stopped several times a day to appear at public gatherings.

What are they all about? Masks and children. Central to Querdenken’s rhetoric is a bizarre claim that protective masks kill. The movement’s supporters claim that face coverings have caused the deaths of four children. 

Three of these appear to have been entirely invented. The fourth supposed example refers to the tragic story of a 13-year-old girl who died of as yet unknown causes on a school bus in September. There is no evidence that her death is connected to her wearing a mask.

Why this matters: Because their lies seem to be sticking and spreading. While the movement is not explicitly politically aligned, its support base overlaps with the far-right AfD party, Germany’s emerging QAnon movement and neo-Nazi groups. After an AfD politician publicly attributed the 13-year-old’s death to wearing a mask, the rumor was picked up by right-wing media as far away as Brazil, where a fact-checking publication conducted a thorough debunking of the story.

In recent weeks, Germany has experienced an alarming spike in coronavirus numbers. Yesterday there were 6,638 new cases — topping the previous record daily increase of 6,294, which was set back in March. While officials are desperately urging Germans to adhere to pandemic restrictions, the Querdenkers are bringing thousands to the streets and spreading the opposite message. 

Eckert recently began recruiting children to the movement via the private Telegram channel “Samuel Eckert Youngsters.” He says the channel has more than 140 members and that he requires participants to send photographs of themselves to verify that they are not adults.

Even weirder is Querdenken’s latest planned publicity stunt. The Cologne-based Express tabloid reports that — despite its views on face coverings — the organization plans to distribute a million branded masks at 1,000 schools around Germany. 

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And last but not least: Can you guess where a senior Brazilian senator managed to hide a wad of illicit cash? Between his buttocks. 

No, this isn’t a fake. The unusual hiding place was discovered by police who raided the home of senator Chico Rodrigues as part of an investigation into politicians embezzling Covid-19 funds. Rodrigues has now resigned his position as deputy leader of president Jair Bolsonaro’s coalition in the senate. 

The cherry on the cake is the amount he managed to fit in there: 33,000 reais — that’s $5,880, according to today’s exchange rate. 

Have a great weekend, and see you next Friday. 

Natalia Antelava

Editor in Chief, Coda Story