Infodemic: Conspiracies abound in the global anti-lockdown movement and can camels get Covid-19?

Natalia Antelava


Welcome. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, conspiracy theorists are becoming increasingly visible at anti-lockdown protests, from New Zealand to Hungary, and how a Covid-19 propaganda war in Myanmar fuels real conflict.

Anti-coronavirus lockdown protests in Melbourne, Australia turned violent as police arrested over 70 people who came out to demonstrate against government restrictions. The protests were organized after the state of emergency and disaster in the country’s southeastern Victoria state was extended until at least October 11, amid surging Covid-19 cases. Fueling the tensions were Facebook rumors that the government ramped up testing, in order to blame the spike on anti-lockdown protesters.

Meanwhile, police in New Zealand chose a different approach. Thousands of protesters who came out in Auckland over the weekend were reminded to wear masks — which most didn’t do — and allowed to express their doubts, not only about the new lockdown measures but also vaccines, 5G and Covid-19 in general. Many claimed the virus is a hoax. Despite New Zealand’s success in battling the pandemic, coronavirus-related misinformation and conspiracy theories are rising so fast that some people fear that they could derail the country’s response. A new study has also found that New Zealand’s minority groups are especially susceptible to conspiracy theories and disinformation. 

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Europe is not immune to anti-lockdown demonstrations, either. In Germany, thousands took to the streets of Hanover and Munich, while leaders of Poland’s anti-vaccination movement organized a rally in Warsaw. Then there’s bodybuilder turned medical influencer György Gődény, who led a protest in Hungary. Gődény has a degree in veterinary pharmacology, which, he says, qualifies him to dispense his thoughts on the pandemic to more than 100,000 Facebook followers. He refers to Covid-19 as seasonal flu, discourages the wearing of masks and promotes a dietary supplement that he claims protects people against the virus. 

Now, a quick detour to Italy for a glimpse of how the fake theories that feed so much of the protest movement are born and bred. While talking at an event organized by the Rome-based newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made a mistake (link in Italian), saying that coronavirus had caused 135,000 deaths in Italy. The real number is 35 thousand. For conspiracists, Conte’s mistake was more than just a slip of the tongue. Many are now suggesting that he had accidentally revealed the number of  “fake deaths” that the government is planning to attribute to Covid-19 in the upcoming months.

The pandemic is feeding into a conflict in Myanmar, and hundreds of thousands of people are paying the price. Myanmar’s Rakhine state is home to the country’s oppressed Rohingya minority and the site of a separate military conflict against an insurgent group, the Arakan Army, which represents ethnic Rakhine seeking independence from Myanmar.

What’s happened: Rakhine state has recently experienced a spike in cases. Myanmar’s de-facto leader — and fallen pro-democracy icon — Aung San Suu Kyi blamed returning Rohingya migrants and threatened heavy punishments for illegally crossing the border. The narrative caught on in the national media. One newspaper cartoon depicted a Rohingya man illegally crossing a border, followed by coronavirus particles. 

The response: Critics say that the government is pursuing a racist strategy of blaming refugees, in an attempt to deflect attention from its mismanagement of the crisis. The Arakan Army has gone further, accusing Aung San Suu Kyi’s team of intentionally spreading the virus in Rakhine.

Why it matters: Even before the pandemic, the situation in camps for Rohingya amounted to “apartheid,” according to Amnesty International. Now, owing to lockdown measures and coronavirus outbreaks among aid workers, some NGOs have suspended relief services. This is a disaster for:

  • 128,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled their homes in the aftermath of an ethnic cleansing campaign in 2012  
  • 200,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists displaced by the Arakan Army conflict 

Now, the propaganda war over the causes of the virus’ spread is making the situation even worse. 

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And before you go:

Can camels get coronavirus? In case that question has been keeping you awake at night, the answer, according to the World Health Organization, is that there is no evidence to suggest that they can. But that didn’t stop rumors spreading across Swahili-language social media after a herd of camels was found dead in Northern Kenya. The mystery deaths have since been solved. The camels were killed by a bacterial infection. Fun fact: while Covid-19 poses no apparent danger to them, the WHO says camels are susceptible to MERS-CoV, a type of coronavirus transmittable to both humans and animals.

Many thanks to you for reading and to Coda’s Gautama Mehta, Achi Tsitsishvili, Caitlin Thompson, Irina Machavariani and Oleksandr Ignatenko for spotting today’s narratives — both real and fake — that are shaping our pandemic world. Stay away from Covid-19 and all forms of fake news, and, please, keep your feedback and questions coming. 

See you on Friday,