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Arsonist monks and anti-vaccine outrage in France

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: Arsonist monks in France, a global slump for childhood vaccinations and how Zoom is flattening our relationships

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BURNING TOWERS AND VACCINE ‘LIBERTY’ IN FRANCE 

We’ve been covering the anti-vaccination brigade in France — one of the most resistant countries in the world — for several years. Even before Covid-19, legislation by the nation’s ministry of health to make 11 core childhood shots mandatory and ban unvaccinated kids from school caused uproar, prompting many French citizens who had previously been quietly skeptical to become outspoken campaigners against immunization. It worked, though —uptake jumped significantly after the law was introduced. 

Now, there’s a similar furore surrounding new vaccine passports, which are helping to push acceptance upwards, but some people view as a violation of their freedoms. As one activist from the French pro-vaccination group Les Vaxxeuses told me, “The only way to make French people vaccinate is to say to them, ‘You have no right to a vaccine.’” Only then, she said, would they be banging down surgery doors to get their shots. 

President Macron has encouraged people to remember the “fraternite” part of their national motto. “The choice of brotherhood leads to liberty,” he said, arguing that people should think about others when it comes to following Covid-19 regulations. But many voters don’t agree. So, when a French textbook came out this week explaining the rules of quarantine to kids, furious parents complained online that it was a way to “teach children to get used to the limitation of individual freedoms,” some describing it on Facebook and Twitter as “scandalous” Macron propaganda. 

The outraged parents did not resort to book-burning, but France did see some anti-science arson this week. In the sleepy south-eastern region of Rhône, two monks from an ultra-conservative Catholic order were charged with setting fire to mobile network masts with the aim of “warning the population” about the supposed “health risks” of 5G technology. A spokeswoman for their monastery put it down to an “error of youth.” The men in question are 39 and 40 years old. 

Meanwhile, protests against vaccine passports — now in their tenth week — have gripped the country, from Calais to Cannes. In a widely viewed TikTok video, one French woman told viewers that job ads are being posted on the French version of Craigslist, hiring workers to conduct undercover monitoring that businesses are properly checking the European Union’s Green Pass before allowing people in. 

“Now, we are recruiting people to come and spy on businesses subject to the health pass, to see if it is properly implemented!” she said. The posts are fake – there is no covert operation to check Green Pass compliance. One Twitter user also posted the QR code of President Macron himself, which has been leaked online. “In case someone needs a pass,” they wrote.  

Across the border in Italy, the Green Pass is presenting different problems. Miles of red tape, combined with an already challenging landscape for migrants and undocumented people, means that refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people are finding it “almost impossible” to procure a pass in some regions, because they don’t have the necessary documents and ID. 

Alongside Coda reporters Marta Biino and Sasha Tyan, I’ve been looking into how undocumented people are being pushed even further to the margins of society as Italy opens up — including restaurants, theaters, bars and job opportunities — to those with the all-important Green Pass. Stay tuned for our investigation. 

IN OTHER NEWS

Covid-19 has led to a slump in childhood vaccinations around the world. According to the United Nations, South-East Asia and the eastern Mediterranean are the most affected regions, with the pandemic causing widespread disruption to children’s access to access immunization services. So far, an estimated 23 million children around the world have missed out on basic vaccines in 2020. Indonesia is one of the hardest-hit countries. This week, the nation’s health officials said they were living in fear of new outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and polio, as only half of the country’s regions managed to hit their 80% vaccination targets last year. It’s a similar story in the U.S. In May, the CDC reported that 11.7 million doses of childhood immunizations had been missed during the first year of the pandemic. The fear is that unproven worries about coronavirus vaccines have scared parents away from routine jabs, and that, before we know it, we’ll start to witness a resurgence of childhood diseases that had previously been all but eliminated. 

Communication experts trying to measure “Zoom fatigue” are creating a handy scale, so you can check how bad yours is. In a new paper published by researchers at Stanford University and the University of Gothenburg, researchers say the tiredness we feel during Zoom conversations could be because our interpersonal relationships have been “flattened” by the software, and because this distorted form of communication is physiologically disturbing. It’s just weird to stare and be stared at for such a long time — an experience that isn’t usually replicated in the physical world. You can take part in the study here

Finally, a word from Turkmenistan. BBC reporter and friend of the Infodemic Abdujalil Abdurasulov actually managed to speak to Covid-19 patients in the country — where, like North Korea, the disease officially doesn’t exist. According to foreign media, Turkmenistan is experiencing a third wave of infections, but inside its borders, nobody will talk about it. Abdurasulov spoke to a patient who told of suffocating with Covid-19 symptoms, being ignored by hospitals and doctors, and being forced to bribe physicians to get them to pay attention to him. The Turkmenistan government continues to urge people to wear masks, but only to protect themselves from “dust in the air.”

Coda Story’s Mariam Kiparoidze and Alexandra Tyan contributed to this week’s Infodemic. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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