Coronavirus Crisis: China’s social backlash to Trump — Russian virus-erasure — Iranians fact-check their government
By Natalia Antelava ᛫ Editor In Chief MHI Coda
Welcome. We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what’s been done to combat it. Here’s the latest:
From anti-American sentiments fueled by Donald Trump to traffic jams in Tehran and unusual anti-virus measures in Turkmenistan, here are a few narratives — real and fake — that have caught our attention:
As Trump ramps up rhetorical pressure on China in an attempt to refocus blame for the crisis, Chinese social media users are responding in kind. After President Trump repeatedly called COVID-19 a “Chinese virus,” an increasing number of people across Chinese social networks are calling Trump, HIV, and H1N1 an “American virus.” The number of people using the term exploded after Trump’s remarks. “It’s time that we call the H1N1 flu as American flu and tell our children that American flu broke out in China in 2009,” one Weibo user said.
In Russia, the government media regulator Roskomnadzor has asked Youtube, Instagram, Vkontakte (a Russian social network) as well as several independent media sites to delete what it called “fake news” surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. The move deepens fears that the Kremlin is censoring news about the outbreak, making it harder for scientists in Russia to fight it.
Here is the source in Russian, but we have a lot more on the situation, so keep reading.
On the eve of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and amid canceled public celebrations, pro-government papers in Iran tried their best to sound upbeat. “Let’s turn this threat into opportunity” and “Let your Nowruz be a victory over corona” read the front pages of two hard-liner papers: Javan and Kayhan.
Is anyone listening? Not judging by reactions on Iran’s social media, where people are mocking the government for incompetence and an inability to handle the outbreak or even to create conditions that would keep people home.
Speaking of which: here’s a viral video from Iran. It shows a government channel correspondent interviewing people in a giant traffic jam on the road between COVID-19-ridden Tehran and the COVID-19-ridden holy city of Qom. The journalist goes from one car to another asking: “Don’t you know you need to stay home?” “Yes, but my trip was urgent,” all drivers reply.
Context: Iran’s outbreak, the worst after Italy’s and China’s, comes after a disastrous year of floods, riots, US sanctions and plummeting oil prices. Here’s an excellent piece from Foreign Affairs that explains the significance of Iran’s unprecedented plea to the IMF for a $5 billion bailout, the first in 40 years.
This week, the government announced that it would distribute a one-time cash transfer to households without a “regular source of income.” About three million families fall into this category, and they account for some 20 percent of the population. For the poorest families, the transfer will cover about a month’s worth of expenditures. The government is also disbursing low-interest loans of up to 20 million rials (about $1,200 in purchasing power parity dollars) each to another four million families with business losses due to the health crisis.
How does the government plan to pay for these new loans and transfers? Budget deficits are endemic in populist Iran, and now with sanctions, the health emergency, and much lower oil prices, the government is facing its largest budget deficit ever. The budget it sent to the (now outgoing) parliament proposes to address the shortfall in part by sharply increasing the sale of government bonds—by 150 percent, compared with the current year’s budget.
Even in good times, the Iranian public prefers to store its wealth in gold, foreign currencies, and stocks, rather than bonds. In abnormal times such as these, when public trust in government runs low, the government is unlikely to find many buyers. There is plenty of liquid wealth that the government could tap, as evidenced by the booming Tehran stock exchange, but the public may prefer to gamble with its money rather than lend it to the government. And if the public refuses to buy bonds, government-owned banks will have to step in. But when they turn to the central bank to replenish their reserves, the money supply increases, causing inflation.
Turkmenistan is developing its own methods of fighting COVID-19. Unlike other Central Asian countries (where total count has reached 70), the region’s most isolated and most authoritarian state doesn’t have any official COVID-19 cases. Authorities have taken some “preventive” measures disinfecting schools and closing already tight borders.
But instead of banning public gatherings, President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov called on a government meeting and ordered all public spaces to be fumigated with the traditional harmala grass at the meeting with the government.
“It is scientifically proven that the smoke prevents a number of infectious diseases,” according to the news agency reporting on the president’s statement. The government also put out this video of the president promoting the use of the grass.
And staying in Turkmenistan: there’s also been a reported increase in prices for sheep heads and legs after rumors spread that a sheep head soup is an effective protection against coronavirus. Turkmenistan Chronicle has a full report here, in Russian.
In addition to fumigation with harmal , some residents of Turkmenistan began to cook soups from ram’s heads and legs to protect against coronavirus. After the spread of rumors about their benefits and increased demand, prices for this product jumped by 50%.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan correspondents, if earlier a set of a cleaned head and four ram legs cost 20 manat, today it is already 30 manat.
The legs of cattle have risen in price. Smaller ones were previously sold at 10 manat apiece, now at 15, while large ones went up from 15 to 20 manat.
On the whole, the cost of beef also increased, but not so sharply – from 32 to 34 manats per kilogram. It should be noted that the price tags on the Gulistan market still indicate that a kilogram of meat costs 24 manat.
Recall that a week ago, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov called for the prevention and treatment of viral infections to burn harmal and cook noodles with red pepper.