Infodemic: German drinkers use false names and India’s government claims ignorance on migrant worker deaths

Gautama Mehta


Welcome. Coda reporter Gautama Mehta here, taking over from Natalia. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The past few days have seen more protests against lockdown measures and mask requirements in Georgia, Australia, Mexico, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and the U.K. This weekend, Our reporter Irina Machavariani went to a protest held outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi. She saw banners featuring the face of President John Magufuli of Tanzania, who has claimed that the power of prayer has cured his country of Covid-19, and Bill Gates, who was described as “the murderer of children.” Another read, “Make your choice: Freedom or masked slavery?” 

Iran’s health ministry says that an Iranian-built app, designed to help people self-diagnose Covid-19, has been banned from the Google Play Store as a result of U.S. sanctions. Apps and games developed in the country have frequently been removed from the platform. In March, we reported how U.S. foreign policy meant that the Johns Hopkins coronavirus map – a vital tool for keeping track of infection rates – was unavailable to Iranian users.

In Germany, another kind of coronavirus misinformation has surfaced. Bar patrons may be endangering public health by using creative pseudonyms. In much of Germany, customers at restaurants and bars must provide contact information for contact tracing purposes. After a surge in cases, a bar in Hamburg began trying to track down hundreds of patrons for testing, but found its efforts stymied by the false information they had given — including names like Darth Vader, Mickey Mouse and Lucky Luke.

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How to avoid dealing with deaths during a pandemic: just don’t count them

In India, the humanitarian consequences of Covid-19 extend beyond the illness itself and the related deaths. The surprise announcement in March of a mass lockdown — to date, the world’s most extensive — caused an exodus of newly jobless migrant workers from cities to villages, many walking hundreds of miles home. Many died along the way, the causes including starvation, exhaustion, road accidents and lack of medical care.

Efforts to provide relief to poor Indians affected by the lockdown require the collection of accurate data. But recent statements by members of the Modi administration suggest that the government is not only, by its own admission, negligent in recording public health statistics, but that it is also using its lack of data to feign ignorance of the crises affecting migrant workers and frontline doctors.

What they said: 

  • Last week, Indian labor minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar told parliament that the government had not recorded statistics on migrant laborers who have died en route to their homes during the lockdown, and that, therefore, the question of compensating their families “does not arise.” Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai also blamed the migrant worker crisis on a panic created by “fake news,” rather than government negligence. 
  • Separately, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told parliament that he had no data on the deaths of medical workers during the pandemic.

The response: Critics leapt on these comments. The Indian Medical Association issued a rebuke to Vardhan’s statement, noting that more doctors have died in India during the pandemic than in any other country, and accused the government of deliberately concealing these figures.

Reporters also soon discovered that the government had, in fact, recorded data on migrant worker deaths, suggesting that its claim that no such figures existed was a pretext to avoid compensating families. Independent publication The Wire observed that even if the state hadn’t collected its own data, it had access to independently documented statistics. 

Why this matters: I spoke via email to a team of volunteer researchers based in India and the U.S., who have maintained a database of non-virus deaths caused by the lockdowns. They have recorded 971 so far, but emphasized that their findings rely on news coverage, and that many deaths go unreported. They said that the recent comments on migrant workers amount to an “active denial of the crisis by the government.”

“Instead of using statistics and data to guide policy and improve well-being, the Indian government has used health data to defend its arbitrary actions,” added the research team.

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And before you go:

Last week, some of the Infodemic’s central characters were honored for their pandemic efforts with the “Ig Nobel Prize,” an annual spoof award that recognizes quirky and sometimes dubious scientific endeavors. 

The 2020 prize in Medical Education was given jointly to 10 world leaders — Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Boris Johnson (U.K), Narendra Modi (India), Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (Mexico), Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus), Donald Trump (U.S.), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Vladimir Putin (Russia) and Infodemic favorite Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (Turkmenistan) — “for using the Covid-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.”

Many thanks for reading, and to Coda’s Isobel Cockerell, Irina Machavariani and Oleksandr Ignatenko for spotting today’s narratives — both real and fake — that are shaping our pandemic world. Please reach out with tips and feedback. Natalia Antelava will be back in your inbox on Friday. 

Gautama Mehta