Infodemic: Indonesian coffin parades and the unstoppable rise of the health QR code

Isobel Cockerell


Welcome. It’s Coda reporter Isobel Cockerell here, taking over from Natalia. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, Swiss pharmacies are being stormed by people in search of a flower extract hailed as a magic bullet against the coronavirus, Indonesian anti-maskers are forced to dig graves, and I look at how health track and trace programs are paving the way for a broader system of surveillance and social control.

Subscribe to the Infodemic, tracking global Covid-19 disinformation

Indonesia has introduced a creative and macabre punishment for those who refuse to wear a mask: forcing them to sit in a hearse alongside the coffin of a person who has died as a result of coronavirus — or even dig their grave. Last week, authorities also put on a shocking parade. Coffins filled with mask-wearing dummies were carried through the streets of Jakarta, before being put on display around the city. Anti-maskers were then made to lie in them to “contemplate their actions.”

In Germany, rumors are flying that anti-maskers could face jail terms. A fake tweet claiming to be by the head of Bavaria’s cabinet, has been doing the rounds within the community. “No penalty is high enough to bring the critics and objectors of our corona regulations to reason,” it reads, calling for “prison sentences for repeat offenders.” It’s obviously designed to stoke division and enrage protestors. The counterfeit tweet is 81 characters over Twitter’s limit and written in the Times New Roman font. But, as we’ve said before, research shows that no matter how poorly executed these fabricated posts are, they still manage to do their job of spreading disinformation. 

Next door, in Switzerland, the country’s biggest tabloid newspaper is hailing the red coneflower — or echinacea — as a “corona killer.” This is a useful example of how scientific studies can be twisted. An article, on a herbal product named Echinaforce, which contains an extract of the plant, stated that “the active ingredient of the red coneflower has been proven to kill coronaviruses, even if it has only been proven in artificial tissue in a petri dish so far.” In other words, it has not been through any kind of human trial. Nonetheless, these claims have led to people storming the country’s pharmacies. The craze has also spread to neighboring Liechtenstein. A. Vogel, the company that manufactures the product, is now being investigated for advertising infringements. As someone who was spoon fed echinacea as a child, I remain skeptical. 

Subscribe to the Infodemic, tracking global Covid-19 disinformation

Are QR health codes paving the way for a new age of social credit scoring?

When I flew into London last week, I filled in a “passenger locator” form, telling the government exactly where I’d be. It had a QR code at the top. No one bothered to scan it, but, all over the world, these codes are gradually becoming a part of daily pandemic life.

Now, Hong Kong is getting ready to roll out an all-encompassing health code system that tracks infected and healthy people alike. This week, the territory’s finance secretary, Paul Dhan Mo-po, told the Beijing-owned Global Times that residents should prepare for a “normalization” of such measures.

What happened: The territory’s Innovation and Technology Bureau promises the health code rollout will revive the city’s economy and allow for quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and China. The system is intended to be in place by the beginning of October. 

The response: Some Hong Kongers are afraid this will mean the government will tighten its grip on citizens, under the guise of keeping virus numbers down. “The CCP is seizing any chance to set up an intrusive social surveillance system in HK, this time in the name of anti-pandemic ‘health code,” tweeted Eddie Chu, an activist and member of Hong Kong’s legislative assembly. 

Why it matters: In neighboring China, citizens are assigned a colored code on their smartphone to show whether they can move around freely (green) or should be in isolation (yellow, red). The codes, which have been in place since spring, mean that up to three hundred million citizens who don’t use smartphones – such as older, disabled or poor people – have found themselves locked out of daily life. WeChat users have complained that those without the code now have trouble getting into buses, grocery stores and restaurants. 

In China, the codes are paving the way for an extended system of social credit: a scoring structure that ranks people based on their civic behavior. In the southeastern city of Suzhou, authorities trialled the introduction of an additional function called “the civility code.” It ranks not only users’ health, but docks points for careless driving and awards them for volunteer work. “Now they are using a microscope to look into your flaws and to manipulate your behavior according to their liking,” wrote one Weibo user in China. Following widespread criticism, the city ended the trial last week, with authorities saying the scheme needs tweaking. 

Subscribe to the Infodemic, tracking global Covid-19 disinformation

And before you go:

An Indian politician who advocated blowing into conch shells and other bizarre Covid-19 prevention measures has now tested positive for the virus. Sukhbir Singh Jaunapuria, a member of parliament for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, released a video last month, in which — shirtless and covered in dirt — he explained that “you don’t get immunity from medicine,” and suggested instead that Indians “sit in the mud, walk barefoot,” and “eat desi things.” Jaunapuria is one of 24 parliamentarians who tested positive on Monday alone.

Many thanks to you for reading, and to Coda’s Gautama Mehta and Oleksandr Ignatenko for spotting today’s narratives — both real and fake — that are shaping our pandemic world. Hands off the echinacea, and keep those tips coming. We love to hear from you. Gautama Mehta will be taking over the newsletter on Monday. 

See you then

Isobel Cockerell 

Reporter, Coda Story