The Infodemic: Unrest brews as Wuhan emerges from lockdown; global reactions to cuts to WHO funding

Natalia Antelava


Welcome! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. 

Here are a few narratives – real and fake – that have caught our attention:

President Trump’s announcement that he would cut funding for the WHO because the organization is responsible for “so much death” has caused all sorts of reactions. Here’s an interesting one:

  • Margarita Simoniyan, who in addition to running RT — the Kremlin’s most important propaganda network — also has one of the most engaging Facebook accounts I’ve come across, was one of the first to post about Trump’s announcement:

    “Trumps ordered to stop WHO funding. He really is our kind of guy. He likes to spite the conductor.” 

    Simonyan is referring to a proverb: “I’ll walk to spite the conductor,” the Russian version of cutting off the nose to spite the face, and probably to the fact that the US is a major beneficiary of the WHO’s role in global control of outbreaks. 

The big question: How will the WHO funding cut, if it actually goes ahead, affect those who rely on the organization the most? The African Exponent has an interesting piece saying that “reduced funding for the organization will lead to more deaths from Covid-19 in Africa because the majority of the healthcare systems in the continent are substandard.” 

The piece predates Trump’s funding cut announcement and ends with an optimistic — and obviously wrong — prediction: 

Some top analysts, however, believe that since the United States benefits immensely from the WHO in pandemic control and public health regulations, the president’s ‘unguarded statements’ should not be taken seriously. 

In Belarus, where officials continue to resist a lockdown, state TV channels are now calling the coronavirus “a bioweapon developed in the interests of the US.” Interestingly, the report is clearly intended only for domestic consumption, as the video link is not available outside of Belarus. But here are some of the best lines from it:  

  • “What do you do when your chess game is lost? (referring to the United States) You turn the chessboard upside-down. In the past centuries, this was done with the help of global wars. Today, it is scarier because of the nuclear weapons. So, they had to find another way to reformat the world order.”
  • “The plan was that globalization would make the United States and the Western world the ultimate leader. However, it is China that has eventually won.”

Background: Since reporting its first cases of coronavirus in early March, President Alexander Lukashenko has only doubled down on his proclamation that “the most dangerous epidemic is panic.” By keeping businesses open and urging the security services — still operating under their Soviet-era name, the KGB — to investigate those spreading false information about the pandemic, Lukashenko has sent a clear message that he intends to keep the country open. This piece by Coda’s Katia Patin has a lot more detail.

Coda’s Isobel Cockerell has been binge-watching Chinese state TV’s coverage of life returning to normal in Wuhan. Here’s what she did and didn’t find:

SPOTLIGHT: Wuhan ᛫ Isobel Cockerell

Chinese state media has been full of uplifting images of Wuhan’s emergence into the spring sunshine last week, after almost three months of lockdown. 

In the week after Wuhan let its first residents leave the city, footage from the shores of the city’s East Lake was broadcast on Beijing-owned CGTN, as families ventured outside to enjoy the balmy weather. 

“A beam of sunlight is gradually lighting up our hearts,” said a woman interviewed by the channel, while images showed families playing with model airplanes and picnicking beneath the trees. 

But the state media channels, determined to convey that the lifting of the lockdown marks a seamless transition to normality, have remained silent as unrest brews on the streets of Wuhan. 

Beneath the heartwarming images, the city has undergone a huge, silent struggle, the effects of which are only now emerging from indoors. 

Several protests took place in the days immediately following the lockdown, as small business-owners, desperate after months without income, ask for the government to grant them rent relief. 

Videos have been circulating on Chinese social media of protesters chanting “We are begging the government – we don’t want to die! Reduce our business rent!” 

Another video published by U.S.-owned Radio Free Asia showed security personnel swarming protesters in a Wuhan shopping mall, while a report from the Financial Times’ Wuhan correspondent yesterday described police breaking up yet another protest in one of the city’s busiest shopping districts. 

The unrest – and its distinct lack of coverage on Chinese state media channels – reveals the challenges China’s leader Xi Jinping faces in both lifting China’s sweeping lockdown, and controlling its narrative.

Hungry for more?

  • As Boris Johnson recovers from Covid-19, political documentary filmmaker Michael Cockerell looks at a fascinating history of British Prime Ministers lying about their health. 
  • No, Sanitary Pads Won’t Save You From Coronavirus (And Other Popular Fakes in Ukraine and Eastern Europe) from our partners at Hromadske in Ukraine.
  • This is how they do it in Iran: great video of a government spokesman getting a washdown before entering a press conference. 

And here is an an image of social distancing from a bank in Iran, sent to me by a reader via private messenger:

A big thank you for all the tips you’ve been sending our way. Keep them coming, and if you are finding this newsletter useful please encourage others to sign up.

Stay healthy,


P.S. I am on leave this Friday and next Monday, but Coda’s publisher Ilan Greenberg will be stepping in with the latest on The Infodemic.