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Covid ‘miracle cure’ and Sri Lanka’s faltering pandemic response

15 December 2020 12:07 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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In April this year, while the COVID-19 virus was rampaging through communities,  forcing governments to lockdown cities, President of Madagascar Andry Rajoelina, a DJ turned politician launched with much funfair a herbal concoction which he said would cure COVID-19 in ‘seven days.’ Known as COVID Organics, it was a tonic made from extracts of Artemisia, a plant with anti-Malarial properties that used to make Malaria drug Artemisinin. The government of Madagascar dispatched the soldiers from house to house to distribute the herbal tonic free of charge and gave it to high school students to consume.  Madagascar’s neighbours, Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Guinea Bissau have all received thousands of doses of COVID-19 Organics free of charge.


The supposed ‘cure’ was not scientifically proven, but, the government pressed ahead with it. The WHO, however, thought otherwise. It said the Africans deserve scientifically proven medication and Madagascar’s national medical academy also raised the alarm that the drug could damage people’s health.


Madagascar is not exactly the kind of country you want to emulate. In 2018, it was one of only four countries in the world where polio cases were still reported.  Seven months on, the herbal concoction has failed to stop the spread of the virus. At least 259 have died and over 17, 500 were infected. Given the pitiful state of healthcare facilities, these numbers could only be the tip of an iceberg.  However, the Madagascar government is standing by the concoction and has even announced that it would not participate in Covax Global Initiative to secure access to the vaccine. Instead, it would rely on traditional medicine. 

 

Though it was initially reported that it was tested and given to the COVID-19 patients in a local hospital, the authorities have since denied running any official tests.


Recently, Sri Lanka has been re-enacting a similar tragicomedy. An indigenous practitioner from Kegalle, Dhammika Bandara announced that he had produced a herbal syrup that kills COVID-19 virus and cures the illness. With two teaspoons, it gives immunity against COVID-19 for lifetime, and with a little bit of an additional dose, it cures the infection, Bandara assured. His claim was popularized by a private TV station backing the government and the Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi took a sip from the syrup before the TV cameras. The speaker and some parliamentarians were also seen drinking the stuff. No wonder, people went on a mass frenzy to get this miracle cure. Last week, an estimated 10,000 people thronged at his residence at Udumagama in Kegalle. Social distancing was thrown to the wind, roads were blocked, and the police found it hard to control the gathering. The incident could probably become a super spreader.


The local concoction, according to Bandara, is made of herbal ingredients and bee honey using an ancient Ayurvedic recipe. It is not scientifically tested as a medication for COVID-19. Though it was initially reported that it was tested and given to the COVID-19 patients in a local hospital, the authorities have since denied running any official tests. The health ministry has appointed an expert panel to test the drug. It is expected to reveal its findings in a couple of weeks, according to the State Minister of Pharmaceutical Production, Prof. Channa Jayasumana.
So far, the state patronized promotion of the untested concoction has done more harm than good. The real danger is that the unproven drug could give a false sense of security to the people - who take it - to believe that would protect them from getting the virus. Those who are already infected may try it as self-medication, instead of receiving standard treatment. Not everyone, especially the elderly and those with a history of other ailments, would survive such a gamble.  


A common sense discourse on the drug seems hard to emerge. Just like in Madagascar, in Sri Lanka, the drug is flaunted as a showpiece of national pride and indigenous wisdom. The government has rushed to cash on it. However, rather than pride, what all of this betrays is a deep sense of insecurity, intellectual vacuum and professional bankruptcy. 


Pandemics expose both the resilience and the vulnerability of nations. That applies to Sri Lanka’s response to COVID-19.  Resilience is in our health system. The success of the initial COVID-19 response has to do with the well-established public health system and well-trained professional staff. Even as the second wave is raging, they are keeping up.


The vulnerability is in the politicized system of decision-making and political calculations that overrides common sense. Take, for instance, the public relations disaster and the real pain caused by the mandatory cremation of COVID-19 death bodies of Muslims. Sri Lanka is now better known around the world for that scandal than its relative success in the response to COVID-19.


However, even the modest early success is now at the risk of being overwhelmed by a rising number of cases. The country has been recording around 700 new cases daily over the last week, which is an all-time high, and it should worry the authorities.

 

Last week, an estimated 10,000 people thronged at his residence at Udumagama in Kegalle. Social distancing was thrown to the wind, roads were blocked, and the police found it hard to control the gathering. The incident could probably become a super spreader.


 Countries such as Korea and Japan or Australia recently have acted proactively to halt the virus spread when new cases reach the numbers similar to Sri Lanka’s. The government should not expect these numbers to simply disappear or remain static. The virus is infecting the people at exponential growth. 


The hope is that Sri Lanka would also have access to some kind of vaccine by the mid next year, even in smaller numbers. How the medical system would cope until then, if the infection rate is not suppressed should concern the authorities? In such an eventuality, one would hope that the government is not planning to count on Bandara’s syrup as a remedy. 


Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter


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  • nanda Tuesday, 15 December 2020 05:28 PM

    You have already determined that the proposed paniya is not working. Why then research by a team of professionals? Simply take the advice of the so called experts and do nothing in this country and wait for the white peoples vaccine.


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