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Omicron shows how U.S. exports misinformation | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, is cryptocurrency about to become the newest form of big city corruption?

This holiday season, they went to Jared. Of course, by “Jared” I mean Kushner, and by “they” I mean the Middle East countries that the former U.S. son-in-law-in-chief bromanced during his four years working down the hall from Donald Trump. The New York Times said Kushner is now hitting up the Gulf States for petrodollars to start a new investment fund, because nothing matters anymore in post-Trump America.

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Before omicron, a virus of U.S.-baked misinformation infected South Africa.

To coronavirus-exhausted Americans, this story feels painfully familiar. An evangelical minister with a salt-and-pepper beard named Stephen Smith travels across the countryside, preaching to factory workers and rural farmers at a series of tent revivals. But in recent weeks, there’s been less sermonizing about heavenly rewards and more fire and brimstone about the earthly hell that is COVID-19.

According to a recent investigative report by Australia’s ABC News, Smith tells worshipers not only to avoid the COVID-19 vaccines but also not to get tests. That’s because, he later told the news org, he believes that powerful people planned the pandemic “as an opportunity to get richer.” His advice to those infected by the disease: Prayer and a mixture of ginger, lemon juice, garlic, and aspirin, a remedy that he picked up — like the rest of his information about the global nightmare that has claimed at least 5.2 million lives — “researching the internet.”

But Stephen Smith isn’t pitching his tent in the cornfields of Kansas or Nebraska. He’s an itinerant minister nearly 8,000 miles away in South Africa, the nation scientists are now saying appears to have been the critical incubator for the new omicron variant of COVID-19. The apparently highly contagious version has the planet on full alert — triggering travel bans and a Wall Street sell-off — and seems to have flourished in South Africa, where the vaccination rate there is reported to be just 24% of the population, far lower than the global rate of 42%.

But the apparent reason for South Africa’s vaccination crisis — and, perhaps, for the rise of the omicron variant — is more complicated than what many folks initially thought, and it speaks volumes about why we struggle mightily to contain an infectious disease in the 21st century. At the end of the day, scientific know-how is no match for a distrusting public and rampant misinformation, a toxic brew perfected on U.S. soil.

Many first assumed the vaccine problem is South Africa was tied to lack of availability — vaccine hoarding by the U.S. and other developed nations. But while supply shortages do dog Africa’s poorer nations, it turns out that South Africa had of late been experiencing a vaccine glut. Just two days or so before scientists first reported on the variant now called omicron, South African officials admitted to Reuters that it had enough vaccine to last 158 days at current inoculation rates and had asked Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to halt new shipments.

It seems out America isn’t the only nation plagued by what could be called vaccine hesitancy for some, vaccine resistance for many. There’s not one simple reason. Much like the United States, South Africa’s long history of apartheid and racial conflict has led to a climate of distrust of government and the news media. At the turn of the millennium, then-president Thabo Mbeki embraced science denial and conspiracy theory about AIDS that hampered South Africa’s response. Now with COVID-19, allegations of official corruption — including the misappropriation of health dollars meant for pandemic response — has increased cynicism.

» READ MORE: 52 years after the moon landing, Republicans reject science and America is unraveling | Will Bunch

But one of the biggest problems sure looks familiar to Americans who’ve seen vaccine resistance take root on this side of the pond: Viral misinformation on the internet spreading false claims about the efficacy of vaccines or mask-wearing, as well as promotion of bogus cures and other quackery. In a revealing series of posts on Twitter, Eve Fairbanks — a U.S. born, Yale-educated freelance writer who’s been reporting from South Africa for a number of years — wrote that much of the viral disinformation plaguing South Africa was incubated in America.

Tucker Carlson, Bret Weinstein, Dr. Robert Malone, all your British celebrity vax skeptics—they’re all popular,” Fairbanks wrote. “The biggest South African vax-skeptic celebrity, Nick Hudson? 3/4 of his tweets are just retweets of Westerners.”

In September, South Africa’s News 24 reported that Hudson has quoted a U.S. Republican senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, in bad-mouthing vaccines as he criticized government policy coming from Pretoria while promoting unapproved treatments such as ivermectin — the drug that’s also used as a horse dewormer — and hydroxychloroquine. Hudson has also hawked a type of alternative medicine that, according to News 24, is made by a firm where he is a director.

The results of either bad information or deep government distrust have been devastating to South Africa’s vaccination campaign. “It’s your own democratic right to choose [but] I just say that life and death is in the hands of God,” Jonas de Koker, an unvaccinated elder in a rural church in the Western Cape region of the country, told Australia’s ABC.

Two years of a pandemic have revealed the deep distrust of authority after decades of corrupt and unequal neoliberal rule around the world, and the climate that makes it so easy for bogus information to spread — and to be believed. The vaccine resistance in South Africa — much like the recent riots against coronavirus restrictions in the Dutch city of Rotterdam — shows that anti-government and anti-science movements aren’t unique to the United States. But America’s role as such a central source of the worst misinformation, spread over channels created in our Silicon Valley or with the semi-official imprimatur of our Fox News Channel, should be a source of national shame.

Yo, do this

  1. One of the remarkable things about the Slate podcast series One Year — which seeks to define the true meaning and the drama of recent American history through the prism of 12 months — is that its editors pick years that I (wrongly, it turns out) remember as boring. After a brilliant season on 1977, narrator Josh Levin and his team have turned their focus to 1995, with a riveting opener on the Muslim man who was falsely detained and briefly publicized by the media as a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing. I’m looking forward to reliving a year that — raising a baby and a toddler at the time — I have completely forgotten.

  2. Green Day famously asked: Do you know your enemy? The recent National Conservatism 2 conference in Florida — seeking to put some intellectual heft behind Trumpism and against what speakers see as a kind of “woke” liberal fascism — was so alarming that it inspired both a detailed (and often funny) podcast analysis over at the excellent Know Your Enemy, the left-leaning critique show produced with Dissent magazine, and a major warning piece in The Atlantic from the formerly center-right, now centrist New York Times columnist David Brooks: “The Terrifying Future of the American Right.” Check them both out.

Ask me anything

Question: Is there a conspiracy theory from U.S. history that you either low key believe in or just have been [fascinated] by? — Via Abraham Gutman on Twitter at @abgutman

Answer: I love this question so I’m going to answer it even though it comes from an Inquirer colleague. The answer, of course, is “yes.” The three or four people who read my work regularly know I’ve never believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin of JFK. But here’s another: The government has never made a compelling case that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island, killing 230 people, was an accident of spontaneous combustion and not a shoot-down of some sort. Believing that a Boeing 747 simply blew up mid-flight means ignoring a whopping 258 witnesses who saw a streak of white light approach the jetliner. Bill Clinton was running for re-election in 1996 and had reasons for not wanting to deal with the implications of a missile, whether it was a military accident or terrorism. Hey, Watergate and Iran-Contra proved that conspiracies are real. For some of the other alleged conspiracies, the truth is out there.


Anyone who lived through the craziness of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s knows that the signal to sell your stock and get out is when the names of dodgy ventures start appearing on our sports arenas. So news that L.A.’s downtown Staples Center — home to the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings — will become Arena on Christmas Day feels like the warning sign of America’s newest “tulip mania” financial apocalypse. Also predictable: A growing number of big city mayors are looking to crypto as get-rich-quick schemes to fill both municipal coffers and downtown offices that have suffered during the pandemic.

» READ MORE: Vulture hedge-fund capitalism still devouring U.S. jobs. Will we ever do something? | Will Bunch

The latest is Miami’s just-reelected Mayor Francis Suarez, who dove headfirst this month into the cryptocurrency pool. He’s hyping his city’s own brand, MiamiCoin — offering citizens a virtual wallet for sharing proceeds from the venture, and even predicting at “one point” crypto could eliminate the need for city taxes. Suarez also says he’s taking his salary in bitcoin (it’s really just an app that converts his paycheck from old-fashioned dollars, but ... whatever). This echoes a similar promise from New York’s flashy mayor-elect Eric Adams, who also wants to make the Big Apple a global center for the new currency. What could go wrong? For one thing, there’s the rank hypocrisy that crypto is also an unnecessary disaster for fighting climate change. In New York, Adams’ crypto exuberance was followed with a report that he’d flown to Puerto Rico for a vacation on the private jet of a cryptocurrency billionaire campaign donor. (Adams claimed he reimbursed the flight, without offering receipts.) Is the newest fad just a cover for old-school corruption? Stay tuned.

Inquirer reading list

  1. Ironically, I was worried about a steep winter spike in COVID-19 that seemed to be starting around the United States even before the news about the omicron variant broke on Thanksgiving. I had already written my Sunday column about how America’s weary politicians were racing to lift coronavirus restrictions even as case counts are rising in most states, especially in the North. I argued that it is simply common sense — backed now by scientific evidence — for jurisdictions to keep indoor public mask mandates in place, or restore them if necessary, at least for the next few months.

  2. The muddled future of the Democratic Party — despite currently holding power in the White House and on Capitol Hill — is the problem that has launched a thousand op-ed pieces, especially with the 2022 midterms now on the launch pad and President Biden’s approval rating slumping. Over the weekend, I argued the party’s bigger problems aren’t with “woke” leftists — progressives have rallied behind Biden, in fact — but with so-called “moderate” centrists who are in fact extremists when it comes to defending the donor class of millionaires, especially on Wall Street and in Big Pharma.

  3. They say that all politics is local — but what about the national brouhaha over teen vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, cleared on all criminal charges after killing two men and wounding a third during 2020′s unrest after a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin? The Inquirer Editorial Board —in a piece penned by my amazing colleague Abraham Gutman (see above!) like 30 minutes after he returned from paternity leave — found serious implications in the verdict, writing: “Rittenhouse, in essence, was the victor of a state-sanctioned duel — when everyone is armed, whomever squeezes the trigger first gets to claim self-defense.” But the editorial also decried pending Pennsylvania legislation that would allow people over the age of 18 to carry a concealed loaded weapon in public throughout the state — and openly in Philadelphia. Strong local opinions require a strong local newspaper. You support this when you subscribe to The Inquirer.