Pandemic Ploys: March 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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  • As Russia’s assault on Ukraine continues, the COVID-19 pandemic is also inflicting a severe toll on Ukrainians as healthcare facilities are under siege and the refugee crisis worsens.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled corruption around the world, and whistleblowers that draw attention to fraud and misuse are increasingly the targets of harassment, oppression, and violence.
  • Read about how the marketization of Cuba’s homegrown vaccines could bolster autocracy in the latest edition to the Forum’s Power 3.0 blog.

Image Credit: Victoria Kotliarchuk /  

the public health dimension of russia’s war in ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has compounded COVID-19’s devastating toll on Ukrainian citizens. Russia’s armed forces have bombarded civilian buildings and humanitarian corridors, making it incredibly difficult for supplies and critical equipment to reach overwhelmed medical facilities. In addition, over 3 million refugees (and growing) have spilled into other parts of Europe, namely into Poland and other neighboring countries. An unseen casualty of the war is the pandemic’s toll on Ukrainians. Public health capacity is limited as testing capacity is lowered and hospitals are overrun with patients. Reported cases of COVID-19 are spiking to all-time highs in Ukraine and the country’s low vaccination rate has left the already vulnerable population susceptible to the pandemic’s wrath. As Russia’s disinformation operations multiply and intersect with its failing vaccine diplomacy efforts, Ukraine is experiencing the brunt of the deadly conflict as the refugee crisis unfolds.

Russian state media’s disinformation and propaganda to support their invasion complement Moscow’s longstanding effort to undermine Western responses to the pandemic. For example, Russian state media have pointed to U.S.-backed laboratories in Ukraine as potential sources for biological weapons. Seizing the Kremlin’s talking points, PRC state media outlets suggested that COVID could have begun in those facilities, mirroring Beijing’s previous claims that the coronavirus was developed by the United States. The CCP’s amplification of Russia’s allegations allows the party to serve as one of Moscow’s tacit supporters of the war, while also deflecting criticism of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and misleading the public about the origins of the virus. These claims play into Moscow and Beijing’s tendency to weaponize conspiracy theories as well as mis-and disinformation to undermine democratic solidarity with Ukraine. To muddy the information space even further, Russia has spread mis- and disinformation about the pandemic in Ukraine before the invasion, particularly with regard to Russian and Western vaccines. These information manipulation tactics intensify vaccine hesitancy among the Ukrainian populace and alienate the country further from the United States and Europe.

Russia’s aspirations for its vaccine diplomacy, however, have been a casualty of their war and disinformation operations. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has not reaped significant benefits from the relationships that vaccine exports facilitated. During a recent UN General Assembly vote on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, several recipient countries denounced Russia’s actions, even after abstaining from a similar resolution only a month earlier. In addition, the United States announced sanctions on the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which financially supports Sputnik V, alongside its director, crippling its operations. Several recipient countries of Sputnik V have started searching elsewhere for vaccine doses following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Nature’s Paul Webster writes, with “manufacturing challenges in 2021, and sanctions in 2022, Sputnik’s earthward trajectory seems likely to continue.”

Democracies should collaborate to identify policy responses to the ongoing refugee crisis in Ukraine and assist in their implementation, just as the global alliance came together to find solutions to combat COVID-19. However, as Coda Story and other media outlets have revealed, those attempting to flee Ukraine have encountered inflexible COVID-related restrictions in other nations, such as Germany, Italy, and Canada, all of whom have limited state responses to handle the influx of refugees. Furthermore, countries with WHO-approved vaccine requirements have turned away dozens of people seeking to emigrate from Russia in protest of Putin’s war and to flee the country’s repression. While Ukraine combats Russian aggression, alongside the dangers of COVID-19 amid a crumbling public health system, democracies cannot afford to sit on the sidelines without extending a helping hand.

Ryan Arick, Assistant Program Officer, International Forum for Democratic Studies



Russia’s War on Ukraine Has Thrown Putin’s Favorite Mouthpiece Into Chaos (Vice): RT America—the U.S. wing of the Kremlin backed outlet of the same name—shut down abruptly. This move stifles Russia’s ability to sow propaganda and disinformation in open societies. RT was a driver of COVID-related disinformation and propaganda, including an ongoing effort to breed skepticism of U.S. COVID vaccines and amplify contentious debates over mask mandates.



Australia’s Vaccine Diplomacy in Pacific Islands Wards off Beijing, Prime Minister Says (Reuters): The Australian government provided vaccine doses to Pacific Island countries to offset the risk of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy to secure political and security objectives. According to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Canberra’s provisions of medical aid and other forms of assistance hindered PRC efforts to expand its influence in the region.



COVID and Corruption: A recent report from the International Monetary Fund revealed that countries around the world could likely improve medical outcomes by increasing health expenditures. Yet, inequality and corruption degrade the efficiency of such investments. Whistleblowers aiming to combat corruption can face repression and physical violence, as was seen with the extrajudicial murder of two South African advocates investigating overpriced COVID-19 protective clothing in the country.



Pandemic Surveillance: Is Tracing Tech Here to Stay? (Thomson Reuters Foundation) Experts voice continuing concerns about the long-term privacy impacts of tools such as QR code check-ins, temperature scans, and physical tracking devices. Troubling patterns include the sharing in select cases of contact tracing data with law enforcement authorities and the imposition of surveillance tools on employees by employers. With the shift of COVID-19 closer to its endemic phase, these surveillance systems might need to be discontinued. With the shift of COVID-19 closer to its endemic phase, some feel the time has come to discuss when these surveillance systems should be discontinued.

“We’re entering a phase when it comes to questions like, ‘How long are we going to be needing those apps for’?” – Estelle Masse, Access Now

Digital Authoritarianism: A Global Phenomenon (DW): The boom in COVID surveillance tools has accompanied a broader global rise in digital authoritarian practices, which range from internet curbs to the use of facial recognition cameras. Activists see the pandemic as having created an enabling environment for digital repression. According to Nanjala Nyabola, “what we have seen with tech and the pandemic is that some governments have exploited tech, steering it towards general surveillance for its population.”



COVID-19 Pandemic Policy Briefs (World Justice Project): The World Justice Project published five policy briefs to highlight how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the global justice gap, fundamental human rights, governance, corruption, and the rule of law. Each publication provides case studies and practical recommendations for addressing and strengthening core democratic values.



“A Long Shot? Cuba’s Vaccines and Medical Diplomacy (Power 3.0): In the latest edition two the Power 3.0 blog, the Forum’s Ariane Gottlieb analyzes how authorities in Cuba can weaponize two homegrown COVID-19 vaccines to bolster the country’s prestige and influence abroad. This article is a continuation of analysis in a previous edition in Pandemic Ploys.

Ukraine and Global Authoritarian Influence: As the brutal invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold, the Journal of Democracy compiled eight articles on Russia and Ukraine and NED Vice President Christopher Walker authored an article on “The Kleptocratic Sources of Russia’s Conduct” in American Purpose. Additionally, NED board member Anne Applebaum provided testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on how democracies can combat authoritarianism’s rise.

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