ALMATY -- Russian and Chinese media are continuing to circulate disinformation in Central Asia on the coronavirus outbreak, exploiting the escalating pandemic and its deadly consequences to stir panic and confusion in the region.
The two regimes most recently ganged up on Kazakhstan as part of their stepped up co-operation to spread false narratives over the coronavirus pandemic.
On July 9, Vzglyad, a Russian online newspaper, published an article citing a story by TASS that claimed an "unknown infection" with a death rate higher than that of the coronavirus was spreading in Kazakhstan. The Russian government owns the TASS news agency.
The Chinese embassy in Nur-Sultan was reportedly the primary source of the information.
"The diplomatic mission has warned Chinese citizens about a new danger, and specialists from Kazakhstan's Ministry of Healthcare are studying this unknown virus," the article said.
"Research is being done to compare the cause of this illness with the novel coronavirus. The death rate is much higher than from the novel coronavirus," Vzglyad wrote.
TASS and Vzglyad also quoted a statement by the Chinese embassy that allegedly "cited data from Kazakhstan" and said that in Atyrau and Aktobe provinces in and in the city of Shymkent, "there has been a noticeable increase in cases of pneumonia since June, but pneumonia is not caused by the novel coronavirus."
On the same day, a similar article appeared in the South China Morning Post under the headline "'Unknown Pneumonia' Deadlier Than Coronavirus Sweeping Kazakhstan, Chinese Embassy Warns."
The Chinese embassy statement originally referred to "Kazakhstan pneumonia", according to AFP. A later statement changed the wording to "non-COVID pneumonia".
Sowing confusion, panic
The TASS and Vzgylad articles set off widespread panic in Kazakhstan.
Readers forwarded the alarming news over messaging apps, shared it on social media networks and engaged in heated discussions about what this new and deadlier virus could be.
Many readers said that the reports drove them to depression and despondency. Others criticised the government, accusing it of inaction and covering up the true reasons for the rising death rate in the country.
Some visitors to Vzglyad's website, using a rhetorical style reminiscent of the Kremlin's "troll factory", left offensive comments about Kazakhstan. The majority of them baselessly claimed that the source of the "novel virus" was the Central Reference Laboratory in Almaty, which was established with financial backing from the United States.
"Kazakhstan should thank the United States, which created its own biolabs in Kazakhstan and released the virus from there," wrote one commenter going by the name Sergey Aleksandrovich.
"Nobody f---g needs an independent Kazakhstan. I propose that Kazakhstan is ours. Let them [the Kazakhs] learn Russian," wrote a user named Max Curly.
The next day, July 10, the Kazakh Ministry of Healthcare announced that the reports about the "unknown virus" in Kazakhstan were false.
At a news conference in Geneva on July 10, Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation (WHO)'s Health Emergencies Programme, debunked the reports, saying that the pneumonia in Kazakhstan most likely stemmed from the coronavirus.
Doctors in Kazakhstan are siding with the WHO.
The "unknown pneumonia" reported on by the Russian and Chinese media is caused by the coronavirus infection, and moreover, tests sometimes give false negatives, said Mynjykly Berdikhojayev, chief of neurosurgery at the Central Clinical Hospital in Almaty.
"That being said, patients receiving treatment for pneumonia at home are writing to me that [after hearing such reports], they started to panic and are injecting themselves with four or five antibiotics," Berdikhojayev said. "In doing that, they're irreversibly damaging their health because they're self-treating without a doctor's prescription."
Disinformation during the pandemic makes it harder to fight the coronavirus, say doctors.
"A state of anxiety and depression, including when it's caused by a stream of gloomy, negative information, can weaken immunity and make an ill person worse," said Asel Isaleyeva, a doctor at the COVID-19 hospital built in Nur-Sultan this past spring.
Disinformation in Russian media discredits the work of Kazakh medical personnel who labour every day to treat hundreds of pneumonia patients and undermines their efforts, she added.
"China's tainted reputation for being the source of the COVID-19 global pandemic... is weighing heavily on it," said Bolat Sakeyev, an Almaty-based marketing analyst. "So Beijing may be trying to 'create' a novel virus but in Kazakhstan."
This is not the first time the regimes of Russia and China have put out disinformation about the coronavirus. In June, the European Union and Twitter slammed Beijing and Moscow for creating a "flood" of disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.
On June 12, Twitter announced that it had removed more than 170,000 accounts connected to disinformation campaigns being waged by the Chinese government. Before that, on June 9, the European Union (EU) officially accused the Chinese and Russian governments of carrying out intentional disinformation campaigns about the coronavirus in order to undermine European democracy.
In addition, an EU task force on combating disinformation reported as early as April on a "co-ordinated push by official Chinese sources" to divert blame from China, where the virus originated, for the pandemic.