October 19, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

AFRICA

Past as Prologue

Many experts predicted another public health disaster in Africa due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They were wrong.

Impoverished, lacking infrastructure and good governance systems, unprepared for climate change and already struggling against other diseases, African countries were supposed to be especially vulnerable to the scourge that has killed more than 1 million people worldwide. Instead, many African countries have weathered the storm of COVID-19 far better than the US or other richer countries.

“I thought we were heading towards a disaster, a complete meltdown,” South African virologist Shabir Madhi told the BBC. But it never happened. Madhi speculated that South Africans living in crowded conditions might have created “pre-existing cross-protective immunity.”

Reporting in some African countries is difficult. One can’t always trust health ministries in authoritarian countries. Yet most forecasts of African deaths from earlier this year have turned out wrong, Quartz reported. Africa has 17 percent of the world’s population but only 3.5 percent of deaths from Covid-19.

Many Western media outlets have expressed wonder. “Scientists can’t explain the puzzling lack of coronavirus outbreaks in Africa,” wrote the New York Post in a headline.

Washington Post Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah didn’t appreciate the skepticism. “It’s almost as if they are disappointed that Africans aren’t dying en masse and countries are not collapsing,” she argued.

The continent has fared well in part because of past public health emergencies.  Liberia has a robust health infrastructure due to the Ebola outbreak there, and introduced aggressive screening, especially at airports. Rwanda has doctors and clinics that have been battling HIV/AIDS. All their numbers have been low relative to the spread in the US.

Some of the giants of the continent – Algeria, Ethiopia and Nigeria – are facing bigger outbreaks, NBC News reported. But the infection rate has likely already peaked in much of the continent, added the Guardian.

The pandemic is playing out differently in Africa, Devex explained. More than 90 percent of the cases in sub-Saharan Africa are among folks younger than 60 – a larger share of the population than in most developed countries – the reverse of the experience in richer regions. More than 80 are asymptomatic, far higher than elsewhere in the world, too.

Continent-wide institutions like the Africa Centers for Disease Control have also exchanged information and orchestrated responses, Voice of America wrote, making Africa an example for the world about how to coordinate public health across numerous jurisdictions, bureaucracies, personalities and politicians.

Regardless, some are saying that the lowliest enemy has brought the mightiest to their knees while the forgotten stand tall.

WANT TO KNOW

NEW ZEALAND

It’s the Pandemic, Stupid!

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won by a landslide in New Zealand’s general elections on Sunday, securing 64 of the 120 seats in parliament, Axios reported.

Ardern’s Labour Party is projected to win 49.1 percent of the vote, with the final results expected in early November.

Ardern said that she will form a government shortly and thanked New Zealanders for “the greatest support in at least 50 years.”

The victory was seen as a referendum on her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ardern has been praised for her leadership in handling the pandemic: The government imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world when the coronavirus reached the island nation in March. On Sunday, however, New Zealand reported one confirmed case, the first since Sept. 25.

Health officials said that the case is most likely border-related. Ardern has ruled out the possibility of reintroducing restrictions.

IRAN

Open for Business

Iran welcomed the lifting of a United Nations arms embargo Sunday, despite the threat of renewed sanctions from the United States, the Guardian reported.

The lifting of the embargo was in line with the five-year timetable set out in the 2015 nuclear deal: Iran is now able to buy various armaments, including tanks, warplanes and naval vessels, without UN approval.

Russia and China are the two countries most likely to sell weapons to Iran.

Even so, Iranian officials sought to reassure the international community that it had no plans to go on a shopping spree.

“Today’s normalization of Iran’s defense cooperation with the world is a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region,” said Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. “Unconventional arms, weapons of mass destruction and a buying spree of conventional arms” had no place in the country’s defense doctrine, he added.

Iran’s economy, weakened by the sanctions, is continuing to deteriorate due to the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the US has threatened to impose sanctions on any country or company that trades arms with Tehran. Moreover, the European Union and Britain maintain separate arms embargoes on Iran.

In the summer, the US – which pulled out from the nuclear agreement in 2018 – tried to impose a snapback of UN sanctions against Iran.

Britain, France and Germany, however, rejected the demand over worries that Iran would completely withdraw from the agreement.

GERMANY

Old War, New Plague and Lingering Responsibility

Germany agreed to give more than $660 million to aid Holocaust survivors struggling under the coronavirus pandemic, the Associated Press reported.

Nearly 240,000 survivors around the world will receive two payments of $1,400 over the next two years, according to the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as Claims Conference. The money will focus on those who aren’t receiving pensions from Germany: The funds will cover pandemic-related expenses such as masks, as well as food and in-home care.

Germany has also agreed to provide $36 million in social welfare services for survivors.

Since the end of World War Two in 1945, elderly Holocaust survivors have continued to suffer from medical and psychological issues caused by mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis.

Germany has paid more than $80 billion in Holocaust reparations since it reached an agreement with the Claims Conference in 1952.

DISCOVERIES

Little Steps

Plastic pollution is ubiquitous and has become an existential threat to all living things.

Not only do they pollute land and sea but plastics are present in the guts of animals, including humans.

Now, scientists have a solution: To engineer enzymes that eat plastics, Gizmodo reported.

In 2016, Japanese researchers came across the Ideonella sakaiensis bacteria while studying plastic items found in wastewater samples. They found that the new microorganism can break down polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastics, the most common plastic.

Since then, scientists worldwide have worked hard to re-engineer the bacterium’s enzymes and have recently made a breakthrough.

In a new study, a research team developed a two-enzyme cocktail that can break down PET plastic six times faster than Mother Nature – which takes hundreds of years.

The team wrote that the PETase and MHETase enzymes cooperate to break down plastic into simpler structures in a matter of days. The leftover substances can then be consumed by other micro-organisms.

The only drawback is that both enzymes need to work together, otherwise the process is ineffective.

The enzymes could revolutionize plastic disposal even as other studies suggest that humanity needs a more holistic approach to resolving the global pollution issue.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 8,154,935 (+0.59%)
  2. India: 7,550,273 (+0.74%)
  3. Brazil: 5,224,362 (+0.00%)**
  4. Russia: 1,390,824 (+0.00%)**
  5. Argentina: 989,680 (+1.08%)
  6. Colombia: 959,572 (+0.78%)
  7. Spain: 936,560 (+0.00%)**
  8. France: 876,342 (+0.00%)**
  9. Peru: 868,675 (+0.73%)
  10. Mexico: 851,227 (+0.49%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country