22 May 2020 – Friday – #68

Barcelona is moving to Phase 1 next week. Well, hold on, it’s complicated.

I sometimes think that since Covid-19 curtailed the football season here, the government has stepped in to provide alternative sporting entertainment. Rooting for regions of Spain to advance through the four phases of Covid-19 relaxation has replaced rooting for football teams to advance in their leagues.

Right now Barcelona is in Phase 0.5 which allows small businesses and social services to reopen. The Catalan government has made a request to the central government that Barcelona move to Phase 1. I’ll know later today what the central government decides. It’s like waiting for the referee to make a call.

If Barcelona moves to Phase 1, I can travel as I please throughout my sanitary region, but not throughout all of Catalonia. For instance, I want to take a day trip to Girona, which is 1-1/2 hours by train, but Girona is in a sanitary region that’s requested to advance to Phase 2 next week. Going to Girona would be the equivalent of committing an off-sides foul in football, traveling where you’re not supposed to travel. To remain on-sides in this Spanish Covid-19 game, I’ll have to set my travel sights on closer sites.

Along with Girona, most of the rest of Spain will advance to Phase 2 next week. Valencia, however, has requested to remain in Phase 1 due to increased Covid-19 cases. It’s as though Valencia’s team as too many injuries and has requested a bye.

Like Barcelona, both Madrid and Castilla y León have requested to advance to Phase 1. We three regions are the Covid-19 league laggards. Unlike Barcelona and Castilla y León, however, this is Madrid’s third attempt to advance to Phase 1. Madrid is the football coach who never stops threatening the referees. Its center-right government is suing in court to overturn previous central government decisions to keep Madrid in Phase 0.

Anyway, football analogies aside, after a haircut, Phase 0.5 living seems pretty good. Email from my mother, who’s locked down in her retirement home, makes me appreciate just how good. Mom’s extravagances are the homemade cookies friends and family mail to her, and groceries my sister delivers. I, on the other hand, go out evenings for exercise, sneak a friend over for dinner on the terrace, and buy things from local merchants.

Grocery shopping has been allowed during the whole lockdown, but there’s a limit on what you can buy at grocery stores and Mercats. Yesterday I surreptitiously walked to a bookstore to pick up a book I ordered. Today I’m ordering tomato and basil plants delivered from the local nursery. It’s Christmas in May!

I couldn’t think of a clever transition to Africa, so I used a dividing line, which seems like about as good a metaphor as any. One reason to move to Barcelona was quick access to Africa and the Middle East. Among other places, I wanted to travel to Algeria to fact check sections of Dear Mustafa, the novel I finished writing last month. Now it seems unlikely I’ll get to Algeria before the book gets published. If I look from the terrace towards the Mediterranean Sea, Algeria is just over the horizon. I”ll have to make due with that.

Which got me to wondering what’s going on with Covid-19 in Africa. It turns out some remarkably good things.

One smart innovation is “pool” Covid-19 testing used as part of Ghana’s extensive test, track, and quarantine system. Since tests are scarce, a single test is used for blood from a group of people. If the result is positive, the individuals then are tested individually. I haven’t done the math, but that should lead to better test kit utilization per capita if the proportions are calculated correctly. Of course, a false-negative has more significance in this testing methodology.

Senegal is working on super low cost Covid-19 antibody saliva tests.

Senegal is developing a Covid-19 testing kit that would cost $1 per patient, which it is hoped will, in less than 10 minutes, detect both current or previous infection via antigens in saliva, or antibodies. It’s hard to know exactly how this compares with the price of Britain’s tests, but many of them use polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to detect the virus, and cost hundreds of dollars.

Afua Hirsch, “Why are Africa’s coronavirus successes being overlooked?,” The Guardian, 21 May 2020

Senegal, a nation of 16 million, has 32 Covid-19 deaths so far. Ghana, a nation of 30 million, has one fewer death than Senegal.

These are remarkably good numbers, similar to the kind of results I noted last week in the Indian state of Kerala. They are evidence that effective Covid-19 response has very little do with a community’s resources and everything to do with its leadership and gumption.

Africa has its own version of the Trumpian hydroxychloroquine saga, the herbal medicine artemisinin.

One of the most high-profile advocates for using the herbal remedy against the novel coronavirus is Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina, who has been touting Covid-Organics, a tonic containing A. annua that was developed by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research. This week, he claimed that more than 20 other African countries had ordered supplies of the elixir.

C&EN, “Artemisinin raises hopes and fears amid COVID-19,” 15 May 2020.

Like hydroxychloroquine, there are American and European researchers looking at artemisinin as a Covid-19 treatment, or as a source of a treatment. Like hydroxychloroquine, there are no studies that show artemisinin benefits Covid-19 patients.

Then there is the cultural issue.

“If it was a European country that had actually discovered this remedy, would there be so much doubt? I don’t think so.”

Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina, on French television

President Rajoelina has a fair point, but that doesn’t mean artemisinin works.

No continent is perfect, I guess.

I’ll end today with a caution. If you’re reading about Covid-19 in your social feed, it’s a coin toss whether you’re reading a person or a bot. These bots are making people stupid on every continent.

Such bogus ideas on the Internet have caused real-world harm. In England, dozens of wireless towers have been set on fire in acts officials believe have been fueled by false conspiracy theories linking the rollout of 5G technology to the coronavirus.

NPR, “Researchers: Nearly Half Of Accounts Tweeting About Coronavirus Are Likely Bots,” 20 May 2020.

Don’t be stupid. Don’t pay attention to the bots. Pay attention to your friends in India and Africa who are figuring out how to stop Covid-19.


Spanish Covid-19 Phase Map, 22 May 2020 for the following week. Barcelona advances to Phase 1.
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