Infodemic: Protests rage in Europe, chaos reigns in Russia and tigers vote Biden

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, protests across Europe, mass vaccinations in Slovakia and grim scenes in Siberia. Here are this week’s narratives — both real and fake — that have caught our attention and deserve yours.

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The second wave of Covid-19 has hit Europe, accompanied by a rash of protests against coronavirus restrictions. For a week now, thousands have been demonstrating almost daily across the continent, with riots breaking out in Naples, skirmishes in Prague, and police deploying pepper spray in Warsaw. In Vienna far-right groups backed virus-deniers, and Antifa came out to oppose them. There are so many small protests happening in German-speaking countries that a website now hosts a calendar dedicated to them. We counted 70 planned between now and Sunday in cities across Germany, Austria and Switzerland. 

Demonstrations have even spread to Liechtenstein, a tiny principality in the Alps not exactly known for headline-grabbing events. The microstate has a population of just 40,000, but coronavirus cases have been rising consistently. Its government recently imposed restrictions, which, in turn, prompted an oddly solemn demonstration. Attendees simply lit candles in front of the main government building. Not exactly a riot — and just as well because Liechtenstein only has 120 policemen. 

Slovakia, meanwhile, might offer Liechtenstein some inspiration. The nation’s government is about to launch an unprecedented experiment. The plan is to test all 5.4 million Slovaks in a two-week mass campaign. The government hopes to “with an almost surgical cut, try to end the spread of Covid-19.“ The question is whether this is a viable solution for small countries battling the virus or a PR stunt? This piece suggests it could be an attempt by Prime Minister Igor Matovic to repair a public image battered by chaotic management of the crisis. 

No chaos in the handling of the pandemic in China, where testing almost five million people at the drop of a hat is child’s play. The ancient Xinjiang city of Kashgar was swiftly locked down this week and its millions of inhabitants tested after 137 asymptomatic cases were diagnosed. The outbreak began when a 17-year-old girl working at one of the city’s garment factories tested positive. According to state media, the patient “lives at the workplace” and is allowed to return home to her village every two weeks. This arrangement is in line with the Uyghur forced labor program in place across Xinjiang.

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One of the most disturbing videos I’ve seen during the pandemic emerged last week from the city of Novokuznetsk, in south-western Siberia. 

“Here’s one minute in the life of a Covid morgue,” says a male voice as the camera moves through a nondescript space towards a door. The man says, “this is our corridor,” then tilts the camera to reveal body bags piled on hospital trolleys and the floor. He turns around, squeezing himself past the deceased — a pair of pale, uncovered legs visible in the shot — and into another, larger room. “Corpses everywhere. I have to walk on their heads,” he says.   

A Russian colleague laughed at my shock. “There is so much of this kind of stuff. I think we are no longer sensitive to it,” she said, then sent me another. In it, an ambulance crew spent a day driving a coronavirus patient around the Siberian city of Omsk, in search of a hospital bed. They never found one and eventually decided to take the 70-year-old woman with severely damaged lungs to the regional branch of the Health Ministry, from where they called local journalists . 

Official position: Regional health authorities confirmed the authenticity of the Novokuznetsk video, and have admitted severe lack of hospital beds. The regional Ministry of Health has also banned doctors from making public statements about the coronavirus.  

The bigger picture: Russia just reported a new one-day record for infections, but President Vladimir Putin is not going down the lockdown route. He says, instead, that Russia will use “justified, targeted” measures to allow the economy to stay open. Here are three worth highlighting:

  • Vaccine: Putin still hasn’t taken Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, but the government is making a real effort to encourage others to administer it — despite widespread international criticism that it has been rolled out too early and without passing critical phase III trials. It is now mired in controversy at home, too. The nation’s opposition press has reported that volunteers who have been through trials are now getting infected. The government is saying that they must have been given a placebo.
  • QR codes: All night club visitors in Moscow must register their phone number with QR codes that then help the government to find the establishment’s owners. This backfired, when Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov used the system to figure out that one such owner is the sister of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. The finding has real value because information about the business interests of public officials and their families is hard to come by in Russia, and next to nothing is known about Mishustin.
  • Prayer: A recently published book, titled “Coronavirus Prayers: in Aid of the Sick,” is reported to include acts of worship “recommended by the Church.” “When we go to doctors on earth, we must not forget those in the sky,” reads its introduction. The volume is authored by Vladimir Zobern, a Russian writer best known for his previous work “Confessor of the President,” about priests who have influenced Russian leaders. Zobern has top sources. In the 1990s, he founded Russia’s first Orthodox publishing company. His business partner was a monk at the time, but is now known as Bishop Tikhon — a man widely believed to be Vladimir Putin’s personal spiritual advisor.

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Hungry for more?

Georgia goes to polls before the United States. The election will be held tomorrow, and while the campaign has not been quite as dramatic as the Trump-Biden contest, it has still been marred by confusing narratives and disinformation. George Lomsadze dissects a particularly nasty case in which two cartographers are now jailed and awaiting trial on charges of treason.

And could this be evidence of Russian meddling in the US elections? Zoo keepers in Krasnoyarsk who have recruited a bear and two tigers for what they called a US election “primary” — they used the English word, there isn’t an equivalent in Russian. Each animal was given two watermelons to choose from, one bearing a portrait of Trump, another of Biden. Biden won by a single vote. 

Hindu astrologers disagree: Gulf News conducted in-depth interviews with three astrologer. Two predicted a Trump victory. 

Here’s to more clarity in the actual results. 

Have a great weekend, and see you next Friday. 

Natalia Antelava

Editor in Chief, Coda Story