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Recapping 2020's COVID-19 Disinformation Pandemic


FILE - Demonstrators attend a protest against nationwide restrictions against COVID-19 in Madrid, Spain, Aug. 16, 2020. A banner reads in Spanish 'No vaccine No 5G No mask'.

In a year defined by COVID-19, disinformation regarding the deadly pandemic has spread everywhere. Polygraph.info examined some of the major disinformation themes to have emerged from various corners of the world, and where those false narratives overlap.

China

China became the focus of attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, after the first cases were detected in the city of Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. Controversy surrounded the Chinese government’s lack of transparency about the disease. Cases emerged of the government attempting to suppress doctors’ warnings about a new disease rapidly killing patients. Later, Chinese state media attempted to blame the U.S. for the outbreak, spinning multiple unsubstantiated claims about the virus allegedly being engineered in a U.S. military lab.

Imported pandemic: Chinese state media deflects Covid-19 origin
  • Even as the WHO investigation into the origin of the global pandemic was just getting started, Chinese state media claimed Wuhan was not the origin of Covid-19. They misrepresented an Italian study, which found people had developed coronavirus antibodies before the Wuhan outbreak. However, the Italian scientists say their findings do not refute that the virus originated in China, only that the epidemic in China was not detected in time.
Chinese Disinfo Hits U.S. Biolab With New COVID-19 Conspiracy
  • In May, the website of Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, published a news story attempting to connect the infection outbreak in the nursing home in the U.S. state of Virginia to the U.S. Army bioresearch laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland. The article falsely claimed the incident proved that COVID-19 coronavirus originated in the U.S. while providing no evidence to substantiate such claims.
China’s Official Coronavirus Timeline Starts Out Weeks Too Late
  • On Monday, April 6, China’s Xinhua News agency published the full text of the country’s official coronavirus response timeline. The government’s COVID-19 timeline begins with a claim that the first cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause” were detected in the city of Wuhan in “late December 2019.” That is false.
  • Evidence suggests Chinese authorities knew about a mysterious illness in early December but waited to disclose that information and later went after those who sounded the alarm.
Chinese White Paper Praises Coronavirus Response, but Critics Say Secrecy Costs Lives
  • In June, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported the publication of a government white paper detailing the country’s response to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus outbreak and subsequent pandemic, which claimed there had been “no delay or cover-up in the Chinese government's response to the COVID-19 outbreak. That is false.
  • Scientific reports have said the first cases linked to COVID-19 were detected weeks earlier than the government let on. One study conducted by a group of China's top scientists and dated Feb. 21 concluded that the “early population expansion of SARS-CoV-2” (the name for the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan) was detected on Dec. 8 or earlier.
Chinese Again Float U.S. Biolab Conspiracy Theories
  • In April, Chinese state-run Global Times published a story headlined: “Scientists ‘unable to judge’ if US lab is virus source due to lack of govt response.” The article cited “viral reports alleging that the novel coronavirus was leaked from a U.S. military biochemical laboratory” in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Those claims are false. Scientific research strongly suggests the novel coronavirus evolved naturally. No evidence links the outbreak of COVID-19 to the Fort Detrick laboratory.

RUSSIA – A woman walks past a mural painting showing a doctor crushing the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in his hand, in Moscow, on November 19, 2020.

Russia

Russia has been a leading contributor to the spread of COVID-19 disinformation. However, the state officials and the government-controlled media responded with false denials, describing the accusations as “groundless" and “Russophobic.” Below are examples of the Russian COVID-19 fakes and disinformation that targeted both domestic and global audiences.

It Just Won’t Die: Russian Claim That Virus Began As U.S. Bioweapon
  • In April, the pro-Kremlin disinformation outlet News Front posted an article questioning “whether COVID-19 is a successful project of the USA?” The article revisits several Russian disinformation themes – specifically, conspiracy theories alleging that U.S.-funded research laboratories in other countries are secretly developing biological weapons. In this case it takes aim at Georgia’s Lugar Laboratory.
  • Pro-Kremlin media has also spread conspiracy theories about the lab to falsely blame the U.S. and Georgia for producing Novichok, the chemical agent used in the August poisoning of Russian opposition leader Navalny this past August and the 2018 Salisbury poisoning. These claims are false. No evidence has ever been presented showing the Lugar Lab is involved with biological weapons or produced COVID-19 or Novichok.
Skepticism, Not Sour Grapes, Defines West’s Reaction to Sputnik V
  • In August, the Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik published a story headlined: “Why 'Sputnik Moment' of Russia's First COVID Vaccine Triggered 'Sour Grapes' Reaction in Western MSM.” (MSM is shorthand for mainstream media.) At the same time, a Russian expert falsely claimed Western developers were dragging their feet on rolling out a vaccine, potentially sabotaging the fight against coronavirus. However, Western publications reported that Russian authorities had approved the Sputnik V vaccine, and merely raised questions about unfinished testing and lack of data on the vaccine’s efficacy.
  • Kremlin-linked propaganda outlets have also challenged the usefulness of the U.S.-developed, antiviral medication Remdesivir, which has been used to treat patients with severe cases of COVID-19. Such outlets have also falsely linked Remdisivir to Georgia’s Lugar Lab.
Misleading Mashup: Russia’s COVID-19 'Aid' to U.S.
  • On numerous occasions, Russian officials have touted their COVID-19 aid to the U.S., claiming it was humanitarian assistance. In fact, the U.S. purchased the supplies, either in part or in full. Russia media reports also ignored parallel supplies of U.S. coronavirus aid to Russia.
  • Meanwhile, ventilators the U.S. purchased from Russia caused deadly fires at two Russian hospitals. Due to compatibility and safety issues, the U.S. threw out those ventilators.
No Evidence Russia Spread COVID-19 Disinfo? Think Again.
  • On December 9, the website of the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published a column accusing Europe of creating “‘a ministry of untruth’ to fight Russia.” The commentator claimed the resources and opinions contained in the EUvsDisinfo database of “pro-Kremlin disinformation” regarding COVID-19 had nothing to do with the Russian state. That is false. Russian state and state-adjacent media platforms consistently amplified those resources and opinions in multiple languages to meet Russian foreign policy goals.

IRAN – Emergency medical staff transfer a patient with COVID-19 to Masih Daneshvari Hospital, in Tehran, on March 30, 2020.

Iran

Iran was initially one of the hardest hit countries by the coronavirus. In addition to repeating international conspiracy theories about the virus being a U.S. plot, Iran was the source of several pseudoscientific or supernatural claims which may have contributed to the virus’ impact there.

Iran’s Immunity from the Coronavirus? Kiss a Holy Tomb
  • In March, an unidentified Iranian man in Qom claimed there was no room for viruses, germs or diseases” in the city’s mosques and shrines. However, the city was the epicenter for the country’s COVID-19 outbreak at that time.
Iran Unveils Fake Coronavirus ‘Detector’
  • In April, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps spokesman Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif announced that Iran had a new device that could detect COVID-19 “in real time.” He claimed the device enabled detection of the virus with 70- to 80-percent accuracy. However, the device appeared to be a type of dowsing rod. Dowsing is an ancient practice with no scientific basis.
Iran’s Misleading Denial That It’s Spreading COVID-19 Conspiracies
  • In March, the Iranian Foreign Ministry tweeted that the U.S. must answer “mounting global questions about US role in the COVID19 pandemic.” The ministry cited a list of questions published in Global Research, a well-known conspiracy site, regarding the origin of COVID-19. However, none of the questions raised by Global Research do anything to prove the virus is not natural in origin.
Wear a Mask or Eat Salt? An Iranian Preacher Pushes Unproved COVID-19 Remedy
  • In August, Hakim Hussein Kheirandish, a practitioner of Iranian traditional Islamic medicine, claimed that frequently eating salt was better protection against COVID-19 than wearing a mask. However, there is no scientific basis for the claim that eating salt is an effective COVID-19 remedy.

BRAZIL – Aerial view of an area at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery where new graves have been dug in Manaus amid the coronavirus pandemic, on May 22, 2020.

Brazil

Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been one on the forefront of the coronavirus-denial movement. He has consistently downplayed the virus' severity (initially describing it as a "small flu," calling the alarm over the pandemic "hysterical" and even attending anti-lockdown protests). He also heavily promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine – the anti-malaria drug that hasn’t been proved effective against coronavirus – and took the drug when he contracted the coronavirus in July. Just a few months into the pandemic, he fired two health ministers who disagreed with him and settled for one that was a former general. Bolsonaro's rhetoric and actions were boasted by his sons and allies in the Federal Government. Brazil currently has the third highest number of COVID-19 cases and second highest number of deaths.

Bolsonaro’s Top Health Official Flubs a Key Virus Fact
  • During a July 23 media briefing, Brazil’s interim minister of health, Eduardo Pazuello, erroneously said that people infected with the coronavirus but not showing symptoms cannot pass the virus on to others. Numerous studies have found that symptomless transmission is spreading the virus.
Bolsonaro’s Son Counters Coronavirus Attacks with Spin-tistics
  • In a June 27 tweet, the president’s son Carlos Bolsonaro, member of Rio de Janeiro City Council, accused journalists and political opponents of misrepresenting the country’s effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic. He followed with a video that presented statistics chosen to demonstrate the country’s fiscal output for fighting the virus and bolstering the economy. Bolsonaro’s tweet and video are misleading, both in terms of how much money had been allocated to battle the pandemic and how much of those funds were actually spent.

MEXICO – Paramedics transport the body of a man who died from COVID-19 in Ciudad Juarez, on May 26, 2020.

Mexico

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador downplayed the severity of the coronavirus threat. On February 28, when the country had its first confirmed case, the president said the virus was “not even as bad as the flu.” He has also been criticized for persistently failing to wear masks when out in public. State officials suggested mass testing for the virus wasn't essential, including Hugo Lopez-Gatell, a top doctor at the Mexican health ministry. Reports from those working on the front lines describe a broken health care system and lack of equipment, resulting in an inability to properly care for the sick.

Five Latin Countries Where Coronavirus Case Counts are Anyone's Guess
  • On June 14, AMLO said in a video posted on his official YouTube page: "We are leaving behind the most difficult stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not to ring the bells, it is not to sing victory, but I consider that the worst is over." This misleading claim came shortly after a spike in the number of new coronavirus cases in Mexico, with a record 5,222 reported on June 12, and almost 3,500 more on June 13, according to official figures.
With COVID-19 Cases Spiking, Mexico Distorts WHO’s Diagnosis
  • On November 30, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, said that “Mexico is in bad shape” with the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, Mexico had the world’s fourth highest COVID-19 death toll. Yet, when Hugo Lopez-Gatell, Mexico’s deputy health minister, was questioned about Ghebreyesus’ remarks later in the day, he deflected criticism. Lopez-Gatell claimed the WHO director general was not commenting specifically about the Mexican government. That is misleading. Although the WHO director didn’t specifically refer to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, he was responding to a question regarding a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths in Mexico.

COLOMBIA – Venezuelans returning home queue to have their documents checked on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, on August 21, 2020.

Venezuela

The coronavirus pandemic hit Venezuela amid an economic, political, health and humanitarian crisis. Hyperinflation, poverty and a crippling healthcare system meant Venezuelans couldn't access the care needed if they were sick or trying to isolate. Nicolas Maduro, however, has persistently ignored the crisis and downplayed the effects of COVID-19 in Venezuela, instead saying his government's actions have been successful in the fight against the virus.

Maduro's Boasts of Coronavirus Success, Ignores Cratering Health System
  • In October, President Nicolás Maduro claimed Venezuela had provided an example of “coronavirus for all citizens,” touting the success of their 7+7 intermittent quarantine system. While Venezuela had seen a drop in cases, Maduro’s claims sidestepped issues related to the chronic erosion of the Venezuelan health care.
Maduro Downplays Venezuela’s Coronavirus Disaster
  • In June, Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro tweeted that "every day we protect the health of our people.” However, in a study released on May 8, the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences concluded that "the tests carried out so far in Venezuela are insufficient to adequately estimate the true size of the COVID-19 epidemic in Venezuela." It also concluded that "underreporting is estimated to be 63 percent at best and at worst 95 percent of symptomatic cases as of April 23, 2020." Following the study's publication, the head of the pro-government Constituent National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, dismissed the study and ordered an investigation into it. The academy said on Twitter that it was being threatened for "doing [its] work."
Maduro Again Downplays the Depths of Venezuela’s Coronavirus Crisis
  • On August 18, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro tweeted a video of Norkis Obispo, a member of the pro-government political organization Frente Francisco de Miranda , talking about her experience being treated for COVID-19 at the Dr. Egor Nucete Hospital. The video was used to paint a positive picture of care available in the country and Venezuela’s efforts to combat the pandemic. Just two days after Maduro’s tweet, members of the nursing staff at Dr. Egor Nucete Hospital launched a sit-down strike. They refused to further treat COVID-19 positive patients until they were guaranteed proper biosafety equipment and supplies, along with “decent and optimal working conditions” to treat patients without putting themselves at risk.

MADAGASCAR – health worker disinfects a room at the Andohatapenaka University Hospital.

Madagascar

Madagascar's president, Andry Rajoelina, has insisted in using a "miracle" tonic, Covid-Organics, in the fight against coronavirus in the remote African nation. The drink has been offered to the population, including children in school. But Rajoelina's claims about the tonic have not been scientifically backed, and its distribution hasn't stopped the spread of the virus.

Madagascar’s President Promised a Miracle Coronavirus Cure. It Didn’t Work.
  • On April 20, Mr. Rajoelina announced on his Twitter the launch of a promised cure for COVID-19: “Covid-Organics, improved traditional remedy based on artemisia & endemic plants, curative & preventive against #Covid19, is launched!”
  • But the number of COVID-19 cases in Madagascar started rising after COVID-Organics' launch, hitting 14,009 as of August 18, with 173 deaths. After peaking in mid-July at more than 600 in a day, reported cases have fallen, according to tracking by Worldometers. The virus persisted. Hospitals in Madagascar are overwhelmed and those on the frontline do not have enough protective gear to treat COVID-19 patients.
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