Pandemic Ploys: November 16, 2021


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 nations begin to consider vaccine eligibility for children, disinformation and conspiracy theories are on the rise, contributing to in increase of threats against health officials.
  • While battling an increase in COVID-19 cases in the country, China has turned to stringent measures to reach its goal of eradicating the coronavirus, positioning itself as one of the last countries with a “zero COVID” strategy in the world.
  • Mandated COVID-19 passes for citizens in Russia and Hong Kong are being met with the rise of fake versions circulating in public.



Image Credit:“Global COVID-19 Access Tracker,” ACT-Accelerator and Multilateral Leaders Task Force, accessed November 15, 2021,

Analysis from the G20: Multilateral Cooperation, Vaccine Distribution, and Health Equity

Going it alone is simply not an option,” according to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in his remarks to the recent Group of Twenty (G20) Summit in Rome, for which he is serving as chairman. At a time when concerns over global health inequality have emerged at the forefront of debate, Draghi declared that the G20 strategy to reduce inequality in access to COVID vaccines would allow the world to “finally look at the future with great—or with some—optimism.” Nevertheless, despite Draghi’s hopeful tenor, disparities in access to COVID vaccines and related health services are rampant, posing a threat to public health and global governance alike.

The lack of equitable access to medical services and vaccines in low-income countries is one of the most pressing challenges in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. While just over 50 percent of the world population has received at least one vaccine, three quarters of these doses have gone to residents in upper-middle or high income countries and less than 1 percent to citizens in low-income countries. COVAX, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) vaccine distribution initiative, has struggled amid funding gaps, the stalled delivery of promised doses, and delayed supply chains, among other challenges.

Recognizing the need for multilateral cooperation, G20 participants pledged to advance research and development, improve supply chains, bolster global health infrastructure, and establish a Joint Finance-Health Task Force to facilitate international coordination during future pandemics. Moreover, the G20 will aim for every country to achieve a 40 percent vaccination rate by the end of 2021 and 70 percent by 2022, as is consistent with WHO objectives.

The G20’s strategy to distribute vaccines and shore up health infrastructure in low income countries has prompted skepticism. David P. Fidler from the Council on Foreign Relations highlighted how the G20 objectives lack clear strategies for implementationNo additional funding accompanied the newly minted Joint Finance-Health Task Force, and the Rome declaration did not outline a collective commitment on vaccine donations. Some observers, including the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, criticized the G20’s emphasis on addressing future crises while the current pandemic remains a threat. Granted, the G20 is not the only mechanism to address health inequality. For example, the United States spearheaded other initiatives for vaccine distribution to low-income countries, such as an online  summit accompanying the UN General Assembly and a virtual ministerial.

A lack of meaningful cooperation by democracies to address these inequities will undermine public health and negatively impact the future of liberal governance. The coronavirus has already contributed to the erosion of democratic norms and practices, as we often document. In 2020, Freedom House documented a deterioration of democratic institutions and/or human rights in eighty countries—a crisis unfolding amid fifteen consecutive years of democratic decline. Furthermore, vaccine shortages in the developing world offer illiberal figures a window of opportunity to fill that gap. This will naturally enable authoritarian actors to leverage vaccine distribution as a means of securing influence. As such, democracies must work to mitigate disparities in vaccine supplies and health services to bring about an end to the pandemic and ensure the future of liberal governance.

– Ariane Gottlieb, Program Assistant, International Forum for Democratic Studies



WHO Casts Doubt on Turkmenistan’s Zero-Covid Claim (BBC): Until recently, the WHO reported the country’s COVID cases in coordination with official statistics. WHO Senior Emergencies Director Dr. Catherine Smallwood stated that from a “scientific point of view, it’s unlikely that the virus is not circulating in Turkmenistan.”  Bruce Pannier of RFE/RL argued that Turkmen officials may have delayed the invitation for the WHO’s July 2020 visit in order to hide evidence that the virus was circulating in the country. Just days before the WHO’s visit, Catherine Putz reported in The Diplomat that the U.S. Embassy issued a health alert following reports that individuals with COVID symptoms were tested and quarantined in infectious disease hospitals within Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has benefited from the WHO’s case reporting policy that relies on country-supplied data to push its narrative that it has zero COVID cases.

China-Linked Disinformation Campaign Blames COVID on Maine Lobsters (NBC News): Research from Oxford University discovered a network of China linked Twitter accounts that spread mis- and disinformation related to the origins of the coronavirus, including that COVID-19 was manufactured at a Maryland military base. A similar network published tweets in several different languages and forwarded an unsubstantiated claim that the virus could have come from frozen food imports, such as lobsters from the U.S. state of Maine. Observers note that China has levied sanctions on seafood companies amid political, economic, and human rights disputes, as cases in the United StatesAustralia, and Norway illustrate. These examples imply that these tweets are published with political or trade-related intent as much as they are meant to amplify China’s preferred narratives about COVID-19’s origins.

Video: The Two Faces of RT: Russia’s Competing COVID-19 Narratives (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty): RFE/RL and Voice of America’s Russian language service Current Time analyzed RT’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and revealed that its messaging and reporting for domestic audiences was vastly different from that intended for foreign audiences. In a video (in Russian) to viewers, Current Time attested to RT’s support for vaccinations, mask-wearing, and public health protocols to domestic audiences, offering a positive depiction of the pandemic. In sharp contrast, RT peddles COVID-19 falsehoods and conspiracy theories to foreign audiences on its English, French, Spanish, and Arabic platforms. Previous research shows that Russian state-backed media pushes mis- and disinformation against vaccines manufactured within the United States and Europe.



COVID-19 Vaccines for Children Met with Misinformation, Conspiracy Theories, and Death Threats Against Officials: False information surrounding vaccines has proliferated online with greater frequency, contributing to a spike in online harassment of health officials—including death threats. Alexandra Tyan notes in CodaStory’s Infodemic newsletter that the mis- and disinformation not only targets parents and legal guardians, but increasingly children themselves as countries consider approving vaccines for younger age groups. Such mis- and disinformation sows mistrust in vaccines and promotes beliefs that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax.  In Israel, health officials and providers have increasingly been the target of death threats, as the country prepares to issue guidance on administering COVID-19 vaccines to children. Brazil’s health professionals have also encountered online harassment and threatening messages from anti-vaccine accounts and networks seeking to disrupt the approval process for children to become eligible for COVID-19 inoculations.

Indian Home-Grown COVID-19 Shot Wins WHO Emergency Use Approval (Reuters): The WHO granted emergency use approval to India’s Covaxin COVID-19 vaccine last week, clearing the way for many developing countries to acquire doses of it through the WHO’s COVAX initiative. India gave Covaxin emergency use authorization back in January 2021, despite ongoing stage III trials in human participants and a lack of efficacy data. The WHO originally asked for more information related to Covaxin’s efficacy in order to officially approve the inoculation for use. However, some experts have raised concerns about the irregularities in the domestic approval process and ethical violations that may complicate the vaccine’s rollout in other countries.



Assessing the Effects of Covid-19 Misinformation Laws on Freedom of Expression (CIPESA): A recent panel held by the ICT Policy Centre for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA) explains how COVID-19 misinformation laws passed as emergency legislation are likely to stay in place after pandemic-related restrictions are lifted, which could leave lasting consequences for freedom of expression, media, and independent journalism. Over the course of the pandemic, more than 110 countries have adopted emergency COVID legislation, with some of these laws being strictly enforced. African governments have not addressed if or when misinformation laws will be repealed, raising fears that laws could be used to censor independent media and civil society, especially surrounding elections. However, the panel argued that these laws have failed to sufficiently stifle disinformation, increasing the need to work with digital platforms to address disinformation.

Myanmar’s [Burma’s] Missing Millions (The Diplomat): Millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are unaccounted for in Burma following the country’s political upheaval earlier this year, leaving the country vulnerable to another COVID-19 surge. As the Forum has documented this occurring elsewhere, the United Nations has called on the military to account for the $372 million loan after the government stopped publishing procurement reports and other methods that maintained transparency around public spending. Despite the unaccounted aid money, Burma’s military has requested additional support from ASEAN partner nations, including vaccine supplies and access to ASEAN’s pandemic relief funds.

China’s Zero-COVID Strategy Turns Sour: China is one of the last remaining “zero COVID” countries that has worked to eradicate COVID-19 within the country, no matter the cost. PRC authorities have turned to extreme responses while seeking to control and eliminate the virus. A primary school was locked down for hours with children inside because a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, and in Shanghai, one COVID case shut down the entire Disneyland amusement park and adjacent metro station while authorities held more than 30,000 people inside to conduct COVID tests. However, some experts believe the approach to completely eradicate COVID-19 within a country’s borders is unsustainable, and many other nations that have previously embraced this practice, including Australia and New Zealand, have since abandoned such policies. As the University of Toronto’s Lynette Ong stated, the PRC believes that “it needs to maintain a ‘zero Covid’ policy to maintain its legitimacy.”



Fake COVID Passes and New Mandates in Hong Kong and Russia: Law enforcement authorities in Hong Kong requested and obtained the removal from U.S.-based code platform Gitlab of an app apparently imitating the city’s official LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing application. Amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent under the harsh National Security Law imposed by Beijing last year, some worry that the official contact tracing app could become an additional tool of political control. Authorities reportedly plan to expand requirements for use of the LeaveHomeSafe app (already needed to enter government buildings), in part as a step toward simplifying travel for citizens of Hong Kong to mainland China. Meanwhile, in Russia, Moscow plans to supplement regional and local requirements with a national mandate for residents to show scannable QR code COVID-19 certificates upon entering public places. Authorities say the digital certificates, which indicate that their bearer has either been vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19, are needed to counter the spread of fake certificates on the black market.

Better Understanding the Scale of Vaccine Misinformation Online: Revelations in the recently released Facebook Papers as well as a new report from misinformation watchdog Newsguard have brightened the spotlight on the platform’s handling of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Communications scholar Ethan Zuckerman considers how to contextualize widely shared figures on misinformation posts in order to understand their real impact. Making sense of statistics such as the number of views of misinformation posts, he argues, requires knowing the relevant denominator—here, the total number of views by Facebook users over the same period of time—as well as how views are distributed. Yet the “poor tools” made available by Facebook and other platforms fail to supply this information to researchers. The limits of the official research tools offered by platforms, and researchers’ efforts to get around them by devising their own instruments, have been a subject of deepening controversy in recent months.



Border Management After COVID-19: New Strategies Required (Think Global Health): Every country around the world closed their borders in various ways to contain the virus and introduce mitigation measures. These moves represented a shift away  from the previous consensus to avoid complete closures because the negative consequences of such action were thought to outweigh the public health benefits. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting border closures, lockdowns, and restrictions presented extremely difficult challenges for the world’s stateless and migratory populations, who are often, according to International Idea, “left stranded in locations where the virus is more likely to spread.” To address future pandemics and avoid similar negative consequences, the WHO must develop more effective containment strategies that are “risk-based, precautionary, and integrated with guidance on domestic responses.”



The International Forum for Democratic Studies and the Embassy of Canada to the United States are pleased to present the eighteenth annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World, featuring Ronald Deibert on “Digital Subversion: The Threat to Democracy” on Wednesday, December 1, 2021, beginning at 6:00pm Eastern Time. Deibert will discuss how malign actors have turned to digital subversion and surveillance to target civil society, independent journalism, and democratic activism to consolidate their power and stifle dissent around the world. Register for the event on the NED website.

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