Politicians worldwide demonstrate why they’re not experts on the coronavirus

March 6, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Even though some elected officials have medical backgrounds, they’re not always experts when it comes to the 2019 coronavirus.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion on COVID-19 coverage Thursday, Sarah Babcock, Emergency Manager of the New Orleans Health Department, said walking a mayor or city council members through important details of the new disease can be a laborious process.

“So sometimes I just tell them to turn the mic over to the director of the Health Department. She can better explain the fatality rate.”

Globally, politicians have been demonstrating Babcock’s point.

An Indian Member of Parliament said this week that cow dung and urine could provide protection from the 2019 coronavirus. A month earlier, a Russian politician said that infected Chinese patients could flood Russia through Kazakhstan. And an Arkansas senator claimed that COVID-19 had been created by a Chinese lab.

All of these claims are false and have been debunked by the #CoronaVirusFacts/#DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a group of 91 fact-checkers from 40 countries battling COVID-19 falsehoods. But politicians across the world have contributed to what the World Health Organization calls an “infodemic,” which is “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

Here are just a few of the claims the fact-checking community has been following.

Let them eat dung

On Monday, during a parliamentary debate about cattle smuggling, Suman Haripriya, a member of the Indian Legislative Assembly, referenced “ancient priests” using cow dung to purify Indian villages. She suggested a similar remedy would work for the 2019 coronavirus.

IFCN signatory FactChecker.in debunked this claim Thursday, citing the WHO to say there are no known cures for the new coronavirus. NewsChecker.in also cited Times of India, which not only debunked Haripriya’s claim but questioned the motives of Indian politicians spreading it.

Kazakh “loophole”

In Russia, MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who ironically was born and raised in Kazakhstan, claimed that Russia’s neighbor would be a corridor for infected coronavirus patients to travel from China to Russia.

Factcheck.kz immediately debunked this hypothesis, citing the Kazakh government’s effort to shut down all travel between it and China.

Zhirinovsky has been banned from entering Kazakhstan since 2014 for suggesting the country hand over territory to Russia in exchange for debt relief.

Not a bioweapon

Zhirinovsky claimed in January that COVID-19 was an American bioweapon being tested by the U.S. military.

That bares similarity to a claim made by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who claimed the new virus had been created at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a bio-lab located near the animal market where the virus was supposedly originated.

Cotton later recanted those comments, but in an interview on Fox News he cited a study in the medical journal the Lancet that indicated the virus originated outside the Wuhan animal market. Cotton then suggested the market’s proximity to the lab, and the Chinese governments’ “duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning” merited scrutiny.

The Lancet has since put out a statement condemning the suggestion the virus was man-made.

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the statement reads.

A California congressional candidate echoed Cotton’s claim on Twitter Sunday. After a strong backlash, she removed the tweet.