Global Covid-19 news: Bill Gates conspiracy theories may 'hamper virus efforts', Sweden's deadliest month in 30 years

2020-05-18 18:57
Chinese commuters wear protective masks as they line up in a crowd to catch a bus on during the coronavirus pandemic. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Chinese commuters wear protective masks as they line up in a crowd to catch a bus on during the coronavirus pandemic. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

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False claims targeting billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates are gaining traction online since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, with experts warning they could hamper efforts to curb the virus, AFP reports. 

Doctored photos and fabricated news articles crafted by conspiracy theorists - shared thousands of times on social media platforms and messaging apps, in various languages - have gone as far as accusing the Microsoft founder of creating the outbreak.

Gates, who has pledged $250 million to efforts to fight the pandemic, is the latest in a string of online targets despite the World Health Organization's efforts to fight what it called an "infodemic" - misinformation fanned by panic and confusion about the virus.

In recent months, 5G networks and Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros have also been blamed for creating Covid-19, which has killed more than 315 000 people around the world as of Monday.

"Bill Gates has always been a target of specific conspiracy communities," said Rory Smith, research manager at First Draft, a non-profit that provides research and training for journalists.

Gates - whose eponymous foundation has spent billions of dollars improving healthcare in developing countries over the past 20 years - has become "a kind of abstract boogeyman", said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at New York's Syracuse University, where she teaches digital ethics.

A video accusing Gates of wanting "to eliminate 15% of the population" through vaccination and electronic microchips has racked up nearly two million views on YouTube.

Similar allegations "exploded" between January and April, Smith told AFP.

Since the start of the crisis, AFP Fact Check has debunked dozens of anti-Gates rumours circulating on platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram in languages including English, French, Spanish, Polish and Czech.

A number of accusations, including posts claiming that the FBI arrested Gates for biological terrorism or that he supports a Western plot to poison Africans, share a common thread.

They accuse the tycoon of exploiting the crisis, whether it is to "control people" or make money from selling vaccines.

Sweden records deadliest month in almost 30 years because of Covid-19

Sweden, whose softer approach to the new coronavirus pandemic has garnered worldwide attention, recorded its deadliest month in almost three decades in April, according to statistics released on Monday, AFP reports. 

Sweden has stopped short of introducing the restrictive lockdowns seen elsewhere in Europe, instead opting for an approach based on the "principle of responsibility".

The Scandinavian country has kept schools open for children under the age of 16, along with cafes, bars, restaurants and businesses, and urged people to respect social distancing guidelines.

A total of 10 458 deaths were recorded in the country of 10.3 million inhabitants in April, Statistics Sweden said.

"We have to go back to December 1993 to find more dead during a single month," Tomas Johansson, population statistician at Statistics Sweden, said in a statement.

On Monday, Sweden reported a total of 30 377 confirmed cased of the new coronavirus and 3 698 deaths.

Restaurants open in Europe - but patrons were scarce 

AFP reports that restaurants and cafes began reopening in parts of Europe and Central Asia on Monday after weeks of closures - but despite new safety measures, wary diners stayed away in many cities.

Under new regulations designed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, restaurants and bars in the country are supplying hand sanitiser, asking employees to wear gloves and masks, and limiting customers to two per table that must be spaced three metres apart.

Elsewhere in Europe, restaurants and cafes were also cautiously opening, but hoped-for crowds failed to materialise.

In Rome, at Piazza Navona in the city's historical centre, all cafes remained closed except for one with a cheery sign posted outside saying "Good Morning, Welcome for Breakfast" written in English.

Tables were lined up but diners were nowhere in sight.

A few steps away, at the San Eustachio Il Caffe, a favourite among tourists, owner Raimondo Ricci lamented the lack of clients.

"There's no one here. Closed or open it's the same thing," Ricci told AFP.

In Slovenia's Ljubljana, where outdoor service has been open since early May, all restaurants were now free to serve customers.

Meanwhile, at French bistro L'education nationale in Denmark's capital Copenhagen, Eric Poezevara filled his fridges and was eager to welcome back lunch clients.

Many Danish restaurants have said they will stay closed a while longer in order to adapt their reopening to the new regulations.

In Spain, excluding Madrid and Barcelona, and Portugal, cafes and terraces also opened up as the countries continued easing restrictions.

In Kazakhstan's capital Nur-Sultan, patrons were having their temperatures checked at restaurant entrances as waiters donned masks and gloves to serve meals and drinks.

French cinema owners oppose drive-in film festival

French cinema owners are up in arms because a drive-in film festival is beating the country's lockdown while they are forced to stay closed, AFP reports. 

They are angry at a travelling drive-in film festival which began in the southwestern city of Bordeaux this weekend, and which is set to cross the country showing a mixture of arthouse films and crowd-pleasing French hits.

The federation of French cinema owners (FNCF) said that the festival and a plethora of other outdoor projections were leeching audiences away when "local and national authorities should be concentrating on battling to reopen cinemas".

The drive-in festival gets around French coronavirus social distancing restrictions by having the audience stay in their cars to the watch the films.

But the organisers of the Drive-in Festival told AFP that they were not trying to take the bread from cinema owners' mouths.

Mathieu Robinet, a former head of BAC Films, one of Europe's leading independent film production companies, said that they "simply wanted to give people a chance to experience some culture during confinement" and that the festival was not a money-making venture. 

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