Pandemic Ploys: January 24, 2022


Understanding authoritarian manipulation and democratic responses during the COVID-19 pandemic. A curated newsletter from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. If you enjoy this newsletter, forward it to a friend or share it on social media so that others can subscribe.

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  • Private sector and government actors alike are devising strategies to counter the critical threat that mis- and disinformation pose to the integrity of the information space. 
  • Surveillance tools, introduced to limit the spread of the coronavirus, continue to allow authorities in some contexts to use collected data for purposes other than public health.  
  • For the Forum’s Power 3.0 blog, Ryan Arick examines opportunities for democracies to strengthen resilience amid COVID-19 challenges in between the Summits for Democracy.  

Image Credit: angellodeco /

Cuba’s Vaccines and Medical Diplomacy

Global vaccine inequity is hindering the race to inoculate the world against the virus. Understandably, the development and distribution of two Cuban vaccines was met with acclaim in the media, leading some to speculate that it could mark a turning point for low-income countries seeking vaccine doses. Havana is administering two homegrown vaccines, Soberana and Abdala. Thus far, health officials have distributed over 33 million doses in the country, inoculating more than 85% of the population. Although the vaccines’ efficacy has yet to be peer reviewed internationally, Cuban clinical trials suggest that both vaccines are over 90 percent effective, likely contributing to the steep decline in positive infections in the country following a summer 2021 surge. (Cases are now rising again, likely due to the omicron variant). Havana has also already signed agreements to send to or produce its vaccines in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Iran, and discussions with other countries are underway.

Cuba’s investment in COVID-19 vaccines plays well into Havana’s broader practice of leveraging its healthcare system as a source of power beyond its borders—somewhat paralleling other authoritarian actors’ efforts which this newsletter has previously documented. As Cuba begins to export its vaccines, where does its health diplomacy’s soft power appeal become sharp? Cuba’s vaccine development and responses to COVID-19 domestically have fallen prey to some of the same authoritarian tactics witnessed elsewhere: rushed vaccine testing, a lack of transparency, labor rights violations vis-à-vis health workers, and threats to civil liberties and privacy.

A pressing demand for vaccines in Cuba and beyond compelled Havana to begin administering and exporting vaccines before tests were conclusive. The government started distributing vaccines domestically and creating export agreements before Phase 3 testing was complete and the country’s regulatory body granted approval (much like Russia’s rushed testing of its Sputnik V vaccine). Though Phase 3 trials have since been completed successfully, this policy concerned regional partners and external observers. A group of Venezuelan healthcare workers, for instance, opposed the use of Cuban vaccines until Phase 3 testing was complete or the WHO granted approval. The Pan American Health Organization also urged Cuba to make its data available to the wider scientific community.

Cuba also deploys doctors abroad to offer medical aid. In 2020, Havana sent 4,000 doctors to almost 40 countries spanning five continents to help mitigate the pandemic’s impact (in addition to 28,000 doctors who were already overseas prior to COVID’s onset).  Yet, the severe strain on Cuba’s domestic healthcare system amid the crisis compelled Havana to recall hundreds of doctors working abroad. Moreover, critics and doctors who defected from these missions have condemned the poor labor conditions to which doctors are subject. According to Human Rights Watch, the regulations on medical staff stifle freedom of expression and association, the right to privacy, and freedom of movement.

In practice, Havana’s past healthcare diplomacy serves other political functions beyond humanitarian aims. Cuba has used its medical diplomacy to promote narratives that paint the Cuban revolution as successful, offer low-income countries an alternative source of medical assistance, and incentivize governments to resist international pressure to condemn Cuba’s autocracy. While any potential political returns of the country’s vaccine diplomacy are not yet known, Havana is already showing an ability to fill vaccine gaps in other internationally-isolated authoritarian states, potentially helping solidify ties between Cuba and recipient countries. Moreover, the Cuban Communist Party’s tight control over its medical diplomacy efforts have already shown it to be vulnerable to political manipulation that directly backs authoritarian allies, such as in Venezuela, where Cuban doctors were pressured to use their services to secure votes and political support for the Maduro regime.

More concerning, the Cuban government cracked down on criticism of its public health response. In the summer of 2021, thousands of Cubans staged protests decrying economic malaise and the state’s COVID-19 management. In response, Cuban security services arrested around 1,300 protestors and bystanders. Many detainees were held incommunicado, subjected to violence, deprived of sleep, and forced to endure unsanitary conditions.

Cuba’s track record to date suggests that its international export strategy—even beyond closed societies—could potentially become another instance of authoritarian sharp power. The Forum’s Kevin Sheives and Ryan Arick “…identified four problems in vaccine diplomacy patterns from authoritarian governments [outside of Cuba]: they spread outright disinformation about Western vaccines, prioritize being first over being trustworthy, target political elite networks for early access, and secure unrelated political interests in exchange for vaccines.” Elements of these problems have been at play in both Cuba’s history of medical diplomacy and its initial vaccine development, but some have not. As American University professor William Leogrande stated last year, “a successful Cuban vaccine would definitely be a soft power victory for Cuba.” These will be areas to watch out for as Cuba exports its vaccines to other authoritarian, closed societies, or potentially more open democracies.

Ariane Gottlieb, Program Assistant, International Forum for Democratic Studies



Mis- and Disinformation Around the COVID-19 Pandemic Damages Public Health Discourse: In a recent social media takedown, Meta (formerly Facebook) removed an anti-vaccination conspiracy movement in France and Italy termed V_V, which has been researched extensively by Graphika. Since the onset of the pandemic, mis- and disinformation have generated a marked increase of abuse, harassment, and violence against medical professionals online. COVID mis- and disinformation shared online leaves communities especially vulnerable. Social media companies have worked to take down flagged posts, inauthentic accounts, and pages from political officials to prevent the spread of false and misleading information, including those of politicians in Brazil, Poland, and Iran.

Sweden Launches Psychological Defense Agency to Counter Disinformation (Forbes): The Swedish Psychological Defense Agency will offer support to combat disinformation for communities, companies, and organizations. The agency’s goal is to identify and respond to false and misleading information in real time and educate the public about detecting and resisting malign influence campaigns. Previously, the Swedish government has denounced authoritarian, illiberal, and conspiratorial actors for perpetuating and amplifying false narratives within the country, including around elections and the COVID-19 pandemic.



At Least 9 African Countries Set to Produce COVID Vaccines, Africa’s CDC Chief Says (The World): Although Africa’s COVID vaccination rate is low relative to other regions, increased vaccine production capabilities will provide the continent with greater access to necessary tools to combat the virus. Most African nations missed the World Health Organization’s target of vaccinating at least 40 percent of its population in 2021 (only nine of 52 nations met the benchmark). The lack of equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, an absence of medical infrastructure, and vaccine hesitancy, have driven this low vaccination rate, among other factors. As cases of the omicron variant rise around the world, nine countries, including South Africa, Rwanda, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, and Egypt have started to manufacture vaccines for use in Africa specifically.

Analysis: South America is Winning the Global Vaccination Race (Reuters): Early in the pandemic, South America was hit hard by the coronavirus, as Brazil reported the world’s second highest death toll, and Argentina and Peru experienced some of the most severe death per capita ratios in the world. However, South America officially became the most vaccinated region with over 63 percent of the population now being fully inoculated. Effective public health messaging, swift vaccine rollouts, and low public hesitancy (in some locations in Brazil, citizens claim there is a “vaccine culture“) underpin this success.

Nigeria’s Ambivalence to Russia’s COVID-19 Diplomacy (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): While Russia’s vaccine diplomacy strategy emerged in regions including Southeast Asia and Latin America, some African nations have been cautious in accepting COVID-19 vaccines from Russia. In Nigeria, while Russian state media heralds the Sputnik V inoculation to global audiences, the vaccine has not gained significant appeal in the country, due to a variety of factors according to the Carnegie Endowment’s Matthew Page. These factors include questions surrounding the vaccine’s efficacy, a lack of high-level advocates, bureaucratic obstacles, vaccine hesitancy, and existing affiliations with Western medical and health organizations. These factors, in combination with Russia’s failure to deliver vaccines in a timely manner or offer reasonable purchasing agreements with countries, at least partially explain why Russia’s vaccine diplomacy has faltered elsewhere in Africa and other parts of the world.



‘There is No Money Left’: COVID Crisis Leaves Sri Lanka on Brink of Bankruptcy (The Guardian): Sri Lanka faces a looming financial crisis as inflation rates rise and the price of consumer goods soars to unprecedented levels, deepening the country’s preexisting socioeconomic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sri Lanka’s government has been unable to design an effective response in battling inflation and escalating prices, which has triggered a significant increase in poverty. Moreover, Sri Lanka maintains an immense foreign debt, including more than $5 billion in loans owed to China that only worsens this problem. However, now on the brink of bankruptcy, Sri Lanka hopes to negotiate its debt repayment structure as it begins rationing electricity and essential goods.

As the 2022 Beijing Olympics Looms, China Locks Down: The omicron variant has posed a serious threat to China’s zero-tolerance policy toward the virus, as COVID-19 has been detected in several cities across the country, including in Beijing. In response, the PRC has imposed stringent lockdowns in Xi’an, Anyang, and Tianjin, and reports of harsh measures in Xi’an have left residents isolated from aid, food, and other supplies while authorities ramp up surveillance on social media for “negative” lockdown posts. Others have reportedly been forced from their homes under strict quarantine measures, and medical protocols under lockdown procedures led officials to reject patients and refuse medical treatment. However, as Foreign Policy’s James Palmer noted in his weekly China Brief, further lockdowns and restrictions are likely across China in the lead-up to the Olympics. Although China may avoid major coronavirus outbreaks with this approach, Beijing’s strategy will have lasting consequences for privacy, surveillance, and human rights in the country.

From Corruption to the “Mark of the Beast” – Why Countries like Malawi are Struggling Against COVID (The Guardian): Despite releasing over $7.5 million in pandemic relief funds, Malawi’s public health system has been unable to purchase necessary equipment and supplies needed to care for COVID-infected patients. After a prominent human rights activist died from complications resulting from the virus, Malawians demanded an investigation into the government’s spending and urged a community-led response to the crisis. An official government report found that nearly 80 percent of the appropriated funds were misused for kickbacks and allowances to well-connected officials; however, no charges have been filed even as Malawi’s president Lazarus Chakwera vowed to bring those responsible to justice. Pandemic relief funds have been misused elsewhere in Africa, as Elsa Peraldi of Global Integrity argues as it relates to Equatorial Guinea, enabling and strengthening corruption and kleptocracy.



South Koreans Debate the Limits of Pandemic Surveillance: South Korea aptly illustrates the global trend toward accelerating and repurposing high-tech surveillance projects to combat the spread of COVID-19. Reporting from the LA Times shows how the country’s intensive digital contact tracing system, which pulls together credit card information and cellphone location data to track the movements of COVID-19 patients, was built on dashboards that were originally set up to manage the country’s “smart city” projects. According to researcher Kim Jae-ho, these measures enjoyed “societal consent” in South Korea, which has experienced comparatively low death rates from the virus. Recent plans in the city of Bucheon to speed up the contact tracing process by using facial recognition cameras, however, were met with public outcry.

Repurposing of COVID-19 App Data Yields Popular Outcry: Recent stories from Germany and Kazakhstan show that the use of COVID-19 app data for purposes other than public health remains a thorny issue across starkly different political contexts. In Kazakhstan last month, businesses successfully protested tax authorities’ use of data from a COVID-19 health certification app, which residents scanned upon entering public places. Officials have been using the app to compare the number of people checking in to businesses with these establishments’ tax records. In Germany, law enforcement officials in the city of Mainz used data from the Luca contact tracing app to identify witnesses to a crime. (Luca’s users check in and out of public establishments so health officials can determine whether they were present at the same time as a confirmed COVID-19 case). German politicians have voiced concern and prosecutors reportedly stated that “the relevant data would not be used further.”



Two Years of COVID-19 in Africa: Lessons for the World (Nature): Despite early success in coordinating a rapid and collaborative response to the COVID-19 pandemic and early warning of a new COVID-19 variant, Africa’s ability to access vaccines and other critical supplies leaves the continent vulnerable to sustained socioeconomic distress because of the pandemic. Promises from donor countries to provide vaccines to those in low- and middle-income countries have fallen short in meeting demand. According to Christian Happi and John Nkengasong, although Africa has been tenuously linked to international cooperation and multilateralism, it can respond to the ongoing COVID crisis just as effectively on its own. The authors argue that if the continent’s approach to public health is “reconfigured toward self-reliance” where leaders can invest in health programs and researching disease; strengthen regional capacity; accelerate research and development in the health sector; invest in health surveillance systems; and build a more centralized system of governance, Africa can better harness its self-reliance and regionally designed COVID responses.

How Information Disorder Affirms Authoritarianism and Destabilizes Democracy (U.S. Agency for International Development): The supply and demand sides of disinformation in the Asia-Pacific region perpetuate the ongoing “information disorder,” where false information exists to shape political contexts. According to the authors, focusing on regulating technology and social media platforms alone is insufficient in mitigating the threat that disinformation poses to global communities because these solutions do not address why false information spreads in the first place. As COVID mis- and disinformation proliferates, public trust in institutions wanes, perpetuating ongoing democratic erosion. To counter this threat, specific, tailored responses to local contexts are needed to address the root causes of disinformation.



Following last month’s Summit for Democracy, the International Forum’s Ryan Arick published a Power 3.0 Blog post entitled “A Light in the Dark: Opportunities for Strengthening Resilience in the COVID-era Between the Summits for Democracy.” In his analysis, Arick argues that democracies must make progress on the Summit’s three goals: countering authoritarianism, combating corruption, and strengthening human rights. As authoritarian and illiberal leaders manipulated the COVID-19 pandemic to entrench their power for personal gain, democracies have a responsibility to stand up for human rights and democratic values to rebuild democratic momentum.

The Journal of Democracy published the January 2022 issue, featuring essays and analysis from Edward Lucas on “How Autocrats Undermine Media Freedom” and Sarah Cook on “Countering Beijing’s Media Manipulation.” Both Lucas and Cook contributed to the International Forum’s Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience series. In addition, read Larry Diamond’s final essay as coeditor of the Journal entitled “Democracy’s Arc: From Resurgent to Imperiled” in which he calls this the darkest moment for freedom in a half century.

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