International Covid-19 news: US 'could have prevented 35 000 deaths', Brazil battles for grave space

2020-05-21 20:59
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(Getty Images)

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A drink made from a bright-green fern-like plant is being promoted in African countries as the go-to cure for Covid-19, AFP reports.

But detractors, with undisguised scorn, dismiss claims for the concoction as at best useless - and at worst dangerous.

Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina is the promoter-in-chief of the substance, marketed as Covid-Organics and sold in the form of a herbal infusion.

Asserting that the Madagascan brew has the potential to "change history", Rajoelina has widely distributed it in his Indian Ocean island nation and exported it to many parts of Africa.

The East African countries of Tanzania and the Comoros are among enthusiastic customers as well as Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast.

Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo made a point of personally taking delivery of his country's Covid-Organics order at the airport.

Artemisia annua has a long history in its native China, where scientists discovered an active ingredient that made the plant a front-line weapon in the fight against malaria.

Covid-Organics seems to be selling like hotcakes in Madagascar, costing 30 euro cents (35) for a bottle.

In Senegal, Belgian agronomist Pierre Van Damme markets the product under the label Le Lion Vert (The Green Lion).

Ibrahima Diop, a producer in the Dakar area, says the retail price has soared by two-thirds.

The counterpart to this enthusiasm is the cool reception that the drink has met in the West.

In recent weeks, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have underscored the need for empirical testing of local formulas to demonstrate they are safe and effective as claimed.

"We would be very proud if a solution in this war against Covid-19 comes from an African country," said John Nkengasong, head of the Gabon-based Africa CDC. "But we must be methodical before approving such a remedy."

Some African countries are exercising caution, handing over their stocks of Covid-Organics for expert analysis. 'Green gold' -

Rajoelina is touting artemisia as the new "green gold" for Madagascar, one of the world's poorest countries.

"Life will change for all Madagascans," he said, noting that rice fetches $350 (320 euros) a tonne, while artemisia changes hands at nearly 10 times as much at $3,000 a tonne.

Brazil battling for grave sites

The day after Brazil registered a record 1 179 coronavirus deaths in 24 hours, Sao Paulo grave digger Moises Francisco notched a bleak milestone of his own.

AFP reports that Francisco works at Vila Formosa, the biggest cemetery in Latin America, a seemingly endless field of graves on the east side of Sao Paulo.

In normal times, he usually has about 15 bodies waiting for him when he gets to work in the morning, he said.

On Wednesday, the day after Brazil's death toll leapt by more than 1 000 in a day for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, there were 33 bodies waiting to be buried.

A troubling surge in coronavirus deaths in Brazil is keeping the crew at Vila Formosa busy.

"We used to handle an average of 30 to 35 burials a day. On a busy day 45. Now we are burying 60 a day," said James Alan, supervisor of one team of grave diggers.

US could have saved 35 000 lives

More than 35 000 lives would have been saved in the US if social distancing measures had begun just a week earlier than they actually did in mid-March, according to a new estimate by researchers at Columbia University, AFP reports.

They said simulations based on several models showed that 61 percent of the US cases of infection as of 3 May - more than 700 000 - and 55% of the more than 65 000 recorded deaths could have been averted if social distancing and other safety measures had been in place a week earlier.

These researchers said the simulations illustrate the danger of easing lockdown measures too early, as many experts have noted. All 50 US states have begun to reopen, to one extent or another and with encouragement from US President Donald Trump, to try to resurrect economies devastated by business closures and layoffs in the pandemic.

"Our results also indicate that without sufficient broader testing and contact tracing capacity, the long lag between infection acquisition and case confirmation masks the rebound and exponential growth of Covid-19 until it is well underway," they said.

The US is the country hardest hit by the pandemic, with more than 1.5 million cases of infection and more than 93 000 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Botswana lifts lockdown

Malls in Botswana's capital Gaborone teemed with shoppers and traffic jams returned to the streets, as the country lifted a 48-day lockdown imposed to control the spread of coronavirus, AFP reports.

The landlocked diamond-rich southern African country has recorded 29 Covid-19 cases, including one death.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi ended the national lockdown on Thursday but kept some restrictions, including movement between regions.

Wearing of face masks remains mandatory and non-compliance attracts a fine of 5 000 pula (about $412).

"The need to contain spread of the virus remains," said Kereng Masupu, coordinator of the presidential Covid-19 task force.

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