The Cheat Sheet

Propaganda and politics in the time of a pandemic

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on April 29, 2020 Published on April 29, 2020

Tell me about it! I’m sick of this ongoing mudslinging on mass media. What’s wrong with these countries and their leaders?

Well, if you are a student of history, you may not be very surprised at the behaviour of political leaders such as Donald Trump or some of his counterparts in a few other countries, during Covid-19. At the drop of a hat, they rush to pass the buck and start blaming each other for triggering a global health crisis.

Trump, the most vocal of them all, has squarely blamed China, and if media reports from the US can be believed, is trying to gain political capital out of it by creating a sense of paranoia towards China and Chinese products and services.

Yes, China-phobia seems to be gaining popularity now in the US, as Chinese products used to be in the recent past.

You said it! In fact, most pandemics in the history of humanity were battlegrounds of propaganda during which countries, companies, political leaders and parties, religious institutions and similar agencies merrily engaged in intense efforts to push their vested interests and gained (or lost) goodwill, commercial benefits, political mileage and social capital.


One of the most striking examples is of the Catholic church during the bubonic plague (Black Death) of 1346–1353. The Church was the most important social and political organisation of the period, influencing every walk of people’s lives, especially in Europe, where the pandemic wiped out nearly a third of the population. The health scare drew people out of religious gatherings and the Church faced a crisis of confidence which most of its opponents, including the rationalists, scientists and philosophers, used as an opportunity to spread their ideas and build a society where religion plays a lesser role than before. Some historians believe that the European Enlightenment (also called the Age of Reason, which was a wave of intellectual and philosophical movements in Europe during the 17th-19th centuries) would not have become so powerful had the Church not been decimated during the Black Death.

But during Covid-19, all we see now are war cries and legal wrangles.

China, where it all began in November, is blamed by countries for having been lethargic in its initial responses to the crisis. The authorities in Wuhan allegedly responded to the first bout of coronavirus cases without much alacrity and countries such as the US, the UK and Australia blame China for causing the pandemic spread across the globe. The Republican Party in the US feels that China must compensate for the losses.

A few countries are also sounding similar demands now. And propaganda machines are working non-stop to make such demands seem normal and legit.

Yes, the media is full of it.

But that’s nothing new. Much like a section of social media tends to believe that the coronavirus is part of a conspiracy, akin to the ‘Wuhan-400’ virus found in The Eyes of Darkness, a thriller novel written by Dean Koontz in 1981, a decent chunk of the global population in the 1980s believed that HIV/AIDS was a product of bio-weaponry research by the US military. Conspiracy theorists were very specific then. They said an experiment at Fort Detrick, Maryland (an Army medical installation some 46 miles north-west of Washington, DC) had caused all the crisis. Remember, this was the peak of the Cold War and the geopolitical gains out of this looked very charming then.

That’s so funny!

Like most of the political rabble-rousing and propaganda today over the origin, spread and impact of the coronavirus.

Clearly, at a time when China is ruling the world (a phrase popularised by Martin Jacques in When China Rules the World, which came out in 2009 when the world was licking the wounds of the 2008 US-sponsored financial contagion) in terms of trade, intellectual property and development of futuristic technologies such as artificial intelligence (China holds the largest number of AI patents in the world today), it is obvious that its rivals will use the pandemic to pedal their agenda.

Can’t agree more.

But China is also trying its best to use the crisis to portray itself as a benign force by organising grand photo-ops each time it sends aid to countries such as Italy, the US, Spain and so on, while doing brisk business in the name of the pandemic as well.

Between March 1 and April 4, China sold $1.45 billion of medical supplies globally; an Economist report says most of the sales to the rich world have been at market prices.

From Jack Ma (who sent aid to 54 African countries) to the US-hated Huawei, which is sending 5,00,000 masks and goggles, 30,000 gowns and 120,000 gloves to New York hospitals, China is evidently making Covid-19 one of the most interesting propaganda exercises we’ve ever seen, especially thanks to social media.

As they say, watch this space as you stay at home safely.

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Published on April 29, 2020
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