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Spotlight shines on coronavirus lies spread by China, Russia and Iran

Salaam Times and AFP

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Residents line up to pick up pork which was delivered to their quarantined compound in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei Province on March 18th. Undeniable scientific and anecdotal evidence proves the COVID-19 coronavirus originated from Wuhan, despite official Chinese attempts to change the narrative. [STR/AFP]

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage around the world, more international attention is focusing on the active disinformation campaigns being waged by the governments of China, Russia and Iran.

All three of these governments are actively promoting alternative narratives as to the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak.

It is well documented and supported by previous Chinese government statements that the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China.

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Citizens of Central Asian countries, who are stuck in Moscow after flights were stopped over the coronavirus pandemic, wait for flights to return home at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on March 24th. [Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

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An Iranian health worker at a scanning station in Tehran in early March, taking temperatures of commuters. [ISNA]

The first cases of infections and deaths were in Wuhan, and before Chinese authorities were able to control the outbreak, the deadly virus spread across the world, upending daily life, sickening tens of thousands and killing over 10,000 to date.

Despite the overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence, the regimes of China, Russia and Iran are spreading disinformation about the origin of COVID-19, each for its own malign reasons.

China deflects blame

Beijing is actively attempting to deflect criticism of its role in the coronavirus pandemic by promoting conspiracy theories.

The spread of these malign conspiracy theories is not coming from Chinese citizens but from the highest echelons of the Chinese government.

After officials realised that the virus that originated in China was wreaking untold havoc around the world, the Chinese disinformation machine began working.

At the end of February, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao first began sowing doubt, saying, "Though the COVID-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China."

On March 12th, Zhao tweeted, "It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation."

Most recently, on March 22nd, Zhao changed his story again, suggesting on Twitter that the virus may have originated in the US last September, saying US authorities should find out more information on "patient zero".

International concern is growing about the accuracy of the information coming from Chinese officials, who announced March 18th that China had no new local infection cases. Many observers doubt that China has had no new infections, considering the scope of COVID-19's spread in the country.

Beijing -- along with Moscow -- on March 23rd blocked a UN Security Council proposed declaration on the outbreak.

The draft proposal highlights "growing concern about the unprecedented extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in the world, which may constitute a threat to international peace and security".

It calls for "full transparency" over the outbreak -- wording seen by some to allude to criticism of government secrecy in China.

Russia putting lives at risk

The Kremlin meanwhile is promoting disinformation about COVID-19 in order to worsen the crisis in the West by undermining people's trust in healthcare systems.

The European Union's Stratcom East task force, which tackles disinformation emanating from Russia, said earlier in March that it had identified almost 80 cases of disinformation about coronavirus since January 22nd.

The strategy is to pump out dozens of different, sometimes contradictory, narratives to sow confusion and fear.

Examples include the notion that coronavirus is a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK, that it originally broke out in the US rather than in China, or that the virus is an instrument to impose totalitarian rule.

Pro-Kremlin sources are not authoring the theories themselves, say researchers working with the task force, but instead are picking up and amplifying conspiracy theories originating elsewhere, such as China and Iran.

There is also speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the coronavirus crisis, and the disinformation campaigns surrounding it, to push through constitutional changes that would extend his rule.

Prioritising ideology over the Iranian people

Tehran, for its part, is spreading conspiracy theories, most notably that the US created the virus, in an attempt to deflect blame from how the Iranian regime has bungled its handling of the outbreak.

The US government on February 29th offered to help virus-stricken Iran.

But rather than accept the aid and help the Iranian people, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on March 22nd rejected the offer, and spread another conspiracy theory that the offer of help was a cover for an effort to worsen the virus crisis in Iran.

"Khamenei rejected this offer because he works tirelessly to concoct conspiracy theories and prioritises ideology over the Iranian people," US Secretary of State Pompeo said March 23rd.

"The regime continues to lie to the Iranian people and the world about the number of cases and deaths, which are unfortunately far higher than the regime admits," he said.

International concern has been growing over the Iranian regime's lack of transparency in delivering accurate information to the public regarding numbers of COVID-19 patients and deaths.

Tehran on March 24th announced 122 new deaths from the novel coronavirus, raising the official death toll to 1,934 and total infections to 24,811.

Instead of taking responsibility and accepting help, Khamenei appears to be placing the country's hopes on faith.

He advised Iranians that "everyone should follow the instructions" of the authorities to fight the epidemic "so that Almighty God will put an end to this calamity for the Iranian people, for all Muslim nations and for all mankind".

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This report has nothing to do with reality or truth. There is a lot of contradictory information that is incorrect. There isn’t even a general idea or goal that the article wants to drive home.

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