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In this photo taken April 24, 2020 residents are given bottles of a herbal mixture which is said to prevent and cure COVID-19 in Antanarivo, Madagascar. President Andry Rajoelina is promoting the drink but there is no scientific proof to back up his claims.Alexander Joe/The Associated Press

When the government of Madagascar began touting an unproven herbal remedy for the novel coronavirus, one of its most enthusiastic supporters was Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who announced that he would dispatch a plane to pick up a supply of the beverage.

The two governments are emerging as leaders of a movement to promote what they call “traditional African” solutions to the pandemic, although most African governments are declining to follow their approach.

So far, five African governments – Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Comoros and the Republic of Congo – have obtained shipments of the Madagascar tonic or promised to import it, even though international experts have warned against it.

Tanzania is perhaps the least surprising of these. For weeks, Mr. Magufuli has advocated prayers and hot steam as solutions to the virus. He refused to close churches, claiming that the virus “cannot survive in the body of Jesus.”

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His government has conducted only 652 tests for the virus, far fewer than its East African neighbours. After a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases and a wave of mysterious deaths, it has stopped releasing daily reports on case numbers. At last report, five days ago, there were 480 confirmed cases in the country, a 60-per-cent increase over the previous week’s report.

Mr. Magufuli has blamed “imperialist sabotage” for the high number of positive test results. He suspended two top officials of the national health laboratory on Monday, alleging that the lab’s testing was faulty. But independent experts say the high rate of positive test results – about 74 per cent – is due to the limited amount of testing, which is detecting only those who arrive in hospitals with obvious symptoms.

Because of the government’s refusal to release daily reports, rumours have flourished. Several deaths among politicians have been blamed on the coronavirus. Videos on social media have shown mysterious “night burials,” with workers wearing masks to protect themselves as they place coffins in the ground under cover of darkness.

Opposition leaders have condemned the secrecy, alleging that the number of cases is far higher than the government admits. The government has defended its silence, complaining that “false statistics” were leading to panic and unrest in society.

The Tanzanian government has a track record of secrecy. Last September, the World Health Organization issued a highly unusual statement about Tanzania’s failure to co-operate on suspected Ebola cases. “Despite several requests, WHO did not receive further details of any of these cases from Tanzanian authorities,” the statement said.

The WHO has also cast doubt on the herbal tonic that Mr. Magufuli aims to import from Madagascar, an Indian Ocean island nation. The global health agency has emphasized that there is currently no cure for the coronavirus, and it has warned against the dangers of self-medication.

The herbal tea, which Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina is promoting under the brand name “Covid-Organics,” is derived from several local plants, including artemisia, which is used in malaria treatment. Its value against the coronavirus is unproven and largely untested, but Mr. Rajoelina has boasted that it could “change the history of the entire world.”

The concoction was reportedly tested on fewer than 20 people in a brief trial in Madagascar before the government’s promotional campaign began. Mr. Rajoelina went on national television in Madagascar last month to drink a bottle of the herbal beverage. He said he wanted to popularize the drink “to protect our population.”

The Madagascar Academy of Medicine has questioned the value of the beverage, calling it scientifically unproven and potentially harmful, especially to children.

Despite those warnings, soldiers have been going door-to-door in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, to distribute the herbal potion, and Mr. Rajoelina has said it will be “obligatory” for schoolchildren to take the remedy. Hundreds of high-school students have already been forced to drink it, with some reportedly complaining that it tasted bitter and made them nauseous.

In a statement on Monday, the WHO’s Africa division said it is “critical” that medicinal plants such as artemisia are tested for their efficacy and possible adverse side effects before they are used as a treatment. “Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world,” it said.

It also warned against “misinformation” about the effectiveness of possible remedies. “Many plants and substances are being proposed without the minimum requirements and evidence of quality, safety and efficacy,” it said. If they are not “robustly investigated,” these products can endanger people and give them a “false sense of security,” which would distract them from crucial steps such as hand-washing and physical distancing, the statement said.

Despite those warnings, the Madagascar government says it will build a factory to mass-produce the herbal beverage within the next month.

Athi Geleba, head of digital communications in the office of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, denied on Monday that African leaders have endorsed the Madagascar herbal remedy. Her tweet carried the hashtag “Fake News Alert."

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