Despite its moniker, the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic almost certainly did not originate in Spain. The belligerents of World War I suppressed reporting on the outbreak in order to avoid harming morale, while Spain, as a neutral country, had a media free to report openly on the extent of the disease. Since most media coverage of the outbreak came from Spain, so too did its origin story. The 1918 outbreak — frequently compared to the current COVID-19 pandemic in terms of public fear and response — could have begun in China, or the United States, or northern France. But the lasting debates around its point of origin — and, by extension, the attribution of responsibility for its spread — are familiar to those of us living through the novel coronavirus outbreak.
More than a century later, several countries are employing disinformation and messaging campaigns around COVID-19 in a branding effort to ensure they are not blamed for the pandemic in the history books. As the number of COVID-19 cases in China has reportedly declined, Chinese state-run media and diplomats, including a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have waged a disinformation campaign against the United States in an attempt to distract from Beijing’s mismanagement of the crisis. This includes a baseless claim that American military members brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan this past fall during the Military World Games.
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