A year of living pandemically and classroom chaos in the Congo

Welcome to the Infodemic, and a special welcome to our new subscribers! Today, I am handing over to Coda’s Katia Patin and Mariam Kiparoidze for a look at the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

One year ago this week, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a global pandemic. At that point, just 120,000 people had been diagnosed with the virus worldwide. The following week, our team launched this newsletter. We knew the virus wasn’t going away any time soon, but none of us thought we’d be here, writing the Infodemic 12 months and 118 million cases later.

In our first dispatch, we told you about pseudoscientific cures, attempts by governments to censor information under the guise of fighting “fake news” and geopolitical spats over who was responsible for the outbreak. Often, it can feel like we’re still scrolling through an endless loop of the same headlines, but these stories are far from static. That’s why our team remains hard at work, tracking the ways in which the coronavirus is reshaping our lives. 

Here are the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have caught our attention and deserve yours.

Protests: Across Europe, anti-lockdown campaigners are gathering against third-wave restrictions, with an increasing number of marches ending in violence. In the Czech Republic, fighting broke out between several hundred protestors and police in Prague’s Wenceslas Square on March 7. Meanwhile, Austrian far-right groups vandalized buildings in Vienna last weekend, injuring a number of security guards. For more on global anti-lockdown movements, check out this rundown by our team.

Information wars: We’ve looked deeply into the spread of online coronavirus disinformation and the people behind it, but lately we’ve seen such campaigns moving in unexpected directions. Last week, our reporter Isobel Cockerell met some of the leafleters littering the streets of London with anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. Since then, we’ve heard from sources that anti-lockdown activists and Covid-19 deniers in Germany, Australia and Canada are distributing printed material to unsuspecting households.

Pandemic polls: The coronavirus crisis has made heroes of the medical experts spearheading national responses, including Dr. Anthony Faucci in the U.S. and Dr. Christian Drosten in Germany. This week we’re also hearing that a number of prominent medical professionals have become leading electoral candidates in Albania and Bulgaria. With long-standing leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and feeling the heat for their poor pandemic performance, could this trend take off elsewhere?

Vaccines: The biggest vaccination campaign in history is underway, with more than 121 countries now immunizing their citizens. However, mixed messages about the safety and origins of vaccines continue to hamper such efforts. The Roman Catholic Church is sending conflicting information to believers in the U.S. over the newly approved Johnson & Johnson shot, because cells derived from fetal tissue taken from elective abortions were used in its development. In Kenya this week, the World Health Organization was forced to address head on false statements made by Catholic doctors that Covid-19 vaccinations are unsafe.

Supply shortages present a separate challenge. Our Ukraine-based intern Oleksandr Ignatenko recently looked up when his turn to be vaccinated will be, using an online tool developed by independent programmers. According to the current rate of the rollout, his result was some time between 2040 and 2056.

Up next, Mariam Kiparoidze looks at how one wild rumor can disrupt a national vaccination campaign. 

SCHOOL’S OUT IN THE DRC

by Mariam Kiparoidze

A couple of days ago, I came across a video that reminded me of being in the third or fourth grade, when my school in Tbilisi received a hoax bomb threat: kids running from the building, jumping out of windows, parents rushing to get them. The difference was that the footage was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it had nothing to do with a supposedly imminent explosion. 

It was filmed on February 25 in the country’s South Kivu region, where rumors had spread on Facebook and Twitter that children would be forcibly vaccinated against Covid-19 in schools, without parental consent. Fact checkers, regional authorities and school administrations all refuted the claims, but it was too late. They had already wreaked havoc, resulting in terrified parents crowding classrooms to take their sons and daughters home.

When these scenes unfolded, the DRC didn’t even have any vaccines. The largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a population of more than 89 million, and one of the poorest nations in the world, it finally received a batch of over 1.7 million AstraZeneca shots last week. It is one of the first states to receive immunizations through the World Health Organization’s Covax program, a global initiative to help small and developing countries access coronavirus vaccines.

Covax has been criticized for an apparent lack of urgency in distributing immunizations, but the DRC faces another significant impediment to its rollout — the vaccine hesitancy and misinformation that the video so starkly illustrates. 

I spoke about those issues with Freddy Nkosi, DRC country director for VillageReach, a US-based organization working with governments to deliver healthcare in low-resource communities. He said there are significant logistical challenges, like reaching remote provincial health facilities because of distance or poor road infrastructure. 

Added to those challenges, fear of the vaccine itself has the potential to seriously undermine that nation’s immunization drive. He added that one of the main reasons falsehoods have spread so widely and so rapidly in the DRC is a lack of solid, factual information to reassure people that getting inoculated is a safe and sensible thing to do. 

In order to build trust, the government is launching its immunization program with a special ceremony on Monday, March 15, during which high-ranking officials will receive their shots in public. 

“It was the same with the Ebola vaccination,” Nkosi said. “At the beginning, people didn’t trust the vaccines. There was so much misinformation and hesitancy, but as public figures got themselves vaccinated and people also started to see more people getting vaccinated, then they started trusting them.” 

Before you go: Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha doused reporters with hand sanitizer at a press conference this week. Frustrated by some of the questions being posed, Prayut picked up a bottle from his podium, held a mask to his face, and calmly began spraying down journalists. You can watch it happen here.

And many thanks to you for sending in comments, questions and story tips. We always want more, so keep them coming.

That’s it from us for this week. Have a great weekend and Natalia will be back with you next Friday,

Katia Patin

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