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Fake arms for antivaxxers and Big Bird’s communist plot

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: conspiracy theorists take on the Covid-18 pill and Vienna’s red light district gets creative

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Sesame Street, Swiss joyrides and sex saunas: a few ways to entice people into getting vaccinated

Last weekend, Big Bird from “Sesame Street” got vaccinated during a CNN town hall episode. “My wing hurts a little bit, but that’s OK,” everyone’s favorite yellow-feathered friend told viewers, showing them a large green Band-Aid. The episode, titled “The ABCs of Covid Vaccines,” featured the show’s regular cast, alongside immunologist Kizzmekia Corbett, who helped design Moderna’s vaccine and Surgeon General Vivek Murphy. But Republicans are not happy. Ted Cruz described it as “propaganda for five-year-olds,” while Arizona Senator Wendy Rogers declared that Big Bird was “a communist.” Florida Republican candidate Lavern Spicer also chimed in, telling Twitter followers that CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr Sanjay Gupta, “pushing drugs’ (vaccine) to kids on Sesame Street is now the cringiest most shameful thing I’ve ever seen.”

U.S. politicians coming for “Sesame Street” puppets is nothing new.  Back in 2002, South African and Nigerian versions of the show introduced a character named Kami, who was HIV-positive. Louisiana Representative W.J. “Billy” Tauzin and five other Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to the show, expressing concern that the new character was inappropriate for young viewers. Most recently, when Elmo and his father discussed racism in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, Fox News host Tucker Carlson described it as “relentless propaganda” and claimed that it sent a message to white kids that “America is a very bad place and it’s your fault.”

Puppets are not the only creative way health practitioners are trying to promote immunization. In Zurich, Switzerland, vaccination centers are enticing people to get their shots alongside free coffee and candy, along with the chance to win raffle giveaways. One winner will even get to drive an armored vehicle down the runway at Geneva airport, “Top Gear” style.

Over the border in Austria, they’re taking things quite a long — and much more problematic — step further. One establishment In Vienna’s red light district is offering clients a free voucher for half an hour with “the lady of your choice,” in return for agreeing to get vaccinated. Austria’s take-up rates are among the lowest in western Europe, and the Fun Palast “sex sauna” hopes its promotion can not only encourage people to get their shots, but also boost its own business after a slump in the sex industry during the pandemic.

GLOBAL ROUND UP

Say what you like about anti-vaxxers, but their creativity apparently knows no bounds. Earlier this week, an online vendor from Melbourne, Australia, was caught selling prosthetic arms, to help people get around Covid-19 vaccine mandates. The bogus limbs, which were advertised on Facebook, will set you back a cool $1,000 each, but are available in left and right-handed versions and various skin tones. Just hide your real arm under your jacket, attach a fake one, attend your vaccine appointment, wince when the needle makes contact and go on your merry way.  

The one red pill conspiracy theorists don’t want you to swallow. The U.K. has just approved mulnopiravir, a new oral medication for the treatment of Covid-19. Phase-three trial results suggest the drug can cut hospitalizations and deaths by up to half. Its approval has been hailed as a great step forward in the fight against the disease — but anti-vaxxers have other ideas, claiming it’s simply another ploy by Big Pharma to control the population. I took a look at the growing backlash and spoke to Dr Siyab Panhwar, a heart specialist who runs a popular TikTok channel debunking health misinformation. Antivaxxers “proudly say that they’re free thinkers,” he told me. “Well, there’s no free thinking going on. They’re all just following some overlord who’s telling them stuff.”

According to a new poll by the U.S.-based Kaiser Family Foundation, 38% of American adults believe the government is faking the Covid-19 death toll. The survey also highlighted the partisan differences between respondents, stating that “unvaccinated adults and Republicans were much more likely to believe or be unsure… compared to vaccinated adults and Democrats.”

Masho Lomashvili, Marta Biino, Katia Patin and Makuna Berkatsashvili 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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