DEA / G. COZZI

A commune of vaccine skeptics in Tanzania

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: An over-vaxxer in India and China’s Omicron Craze

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In a 5,000-strong Telegram group called Awakened Travel, the international unvaccinated discuss how they can roam the world while dodging jab requirements. All manner of resources are available, such as bogus green passes, and tipsheets on which countries have the most relaxed restrictions. 

A favorite destination is Tanzania. In one sub-group, Liberty Places, I’ve been watching members hatch a plan to “start civilization again” and set up a permanent commune for conspiracy theorists on the island of Zanzibar.

The group’s members share architectural sketches of a giant condo they hope to build. “I won’t bring up my daughter in such a tyrannical country,” wrote one British woman in the group, referring to the UK. “It’s hard to know if we are right to flea [sic], I’d be selling our family smallholding we’ve owned for over 20 years.” The initiative is led by ex-Pfizer executive turned anti-vaccine influencer Michael Yeadon, who falsely claims the jab could make women infertile.

Tanzania has extremely lax Covid regulations that stem from when the country was ruled by President John Magufuli, who denied the virus’s existence in the country and promoted conspiracies claiming vaccines were a Western plot. 

He died in March 2021 under mysterious circumstances – the official line was that he had heart problems, but many suspected he had really succumbed to the virus. The current president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has acknowledged that Omicron is spreading in the country, and advises people to vaccinate – but Tanzania is still among very few places with no vaccination requirement for entry. The result? It has become the number one destination for vaccine skeptics. 

My sister and her friend – both seasoned journalists, and in favor of vaccines – are currently holidaying in Zanzibar. They described how the island was partially populated by those who had run away to paradise to escape the pandemic. The owner of their resort, himself a pro-vaxxer, reckons around one third of his guests are unvaccinated. Many are from northern Europe, and have been hanging out on the island for months on end. 

“It’s dawning on them that they’re going to have to get jabbed if they ever want to go home. The net is closing in on them,” my correspondents told me, describing how many of the punters were starting to look a little beleaguered, and were refusing to take malaria tablets despite the high prevalence of the disease in the country. “Paradise loses its sheen after a time.”

China’s Omicron Craze

Now that we’re sure the Omicron strain is milder, here in Britain people seem to be much more cavalier about catching it. But in China, as the lunar new year and the Winter Olympics approach, twenty million people are under lockdown. 

Daily case rates are at just 200, but the government is not taking any chances. The stories emerging from Xi’an, in the northwest, are brutal. 

On social media, people described being woken in the middle of the night with a bang on the door, before being “hauled off” to a quarantine center without warning. State media outlets have shown pictures of armies of people out delivering food to homes — but Xi’an residents who are not living in the center have complained of being short on food: they are banned from going out to get groceries, and all the delivery apps are reportedly sold out or beyond the delivery range. 

The China Digital Times collated a selection of comments online about the situation: “Am I really living in the 21st century?” wrote one Weibo user. “Is this pandemic prevention, or murder?” wrote another. 

Meanwhile, videos have emerged on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, as well as state media, showing spartan, prison-like conditions inside the country’s vast quarantine centers, where people suspected of having the virus are locked in prefab, individual containers, and reports have emerged of children being shut away without their parents. 

Snap stay-at-home orders are an occupational hazard of life in China — if one person tests positive, the entire neighborhood is immediately plunged into strict lockdown. Those who post online about the harshness of the measures face censorship and arrest — as we found when we tried to interview people within locked down cities. 

You don’t have to talk to foreign media to get into trouble. On WeChat, a woman posted about getting trapped in the house of her blind date after the authorities locked down the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou. The date decided to show off his cooking skills and the woman began vlogging the experience, as he served up elaborate meals. She didn’t seem too impressed, saying that his food was only “mediocre.” 

But if you are a glass half-full kind of person, here’s an unusual upside of China’s zero Covid tolerance policy: in a contact-tracing effort in Shanghai, the city’s government posted a list of businesses a Japanese man visited before he tested positive. The list had so many good Japanese restaurant spots on it that people began using it as an underground guide for great Japanese food in the city. 

I’ve starred my Google maps, just in case I ever visit. 

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS

We normally tell you stories about anti-vaccine movements of all sorts, but this week’s Infodemic hero is the world’s first over-vaxxer. Brahmadev Mandal, an 84-year-old man from the Indian state of Bihar, has got himself vaccinated 11 times. He used his relatives’ phone numbers and ID cards to register himself to be jabbed over and over again. Mandal is now under investigation after his trip to get his 12th dose was scuppered by health workers. He told local news channels about benefits of the vaccine far beyond Covid: “I was unable to walk, I had a backache, but now it is gone. I do not get cough or cold anymore,” Mr. Mandal said.

In Iran, the news of an emerging “Xi” variant that “causes bleeding from the eyes, nose and ears” spread like wildfire across Farsi-language social media sites before being debunked by Iranian fact checkers from Fact Nameh. The interesting thing is that these outlandish claims about non-existent variants actually originated from Steve Bannon’s far-right online news channel, War Room. It featured immunologist-turned-anti-vaccine campaigner Dr. Robert Malone — who we wrote about last month — suggesting a terrifying “Ebola-like virus” was being covered up by the Chinese Communist Party. Needless to say, there’s absolutely no evidence to back his claims.

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