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Anti-Covid remedy in Madagascar: an expression of pan-African health

Malagasy people commonly use medicinal plants to protect themselves from disease. Faced with the Covid, the president has made himself the standard bearer of artemisia, which has become a diplomatic issue.

On July 21, 2021, the media reported that the current President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, had survived an assassination attempt. It is less the particular context of Malagasy political and military history that has caught the attention than the role played by Rajoelina in the fight against Covid in Africa.

On social networks, many Internet users explain that it was because of his action against the pandemic that Rajoelina was almost victim of a tragic fate, as many African and Afro-descendant presidents have been before him. This testifies to the image of the island to many Africans: that of a country which has been able to resist the pandemic by its own means, without complying with Western injunctions.

Faced with Covid, the African exception?

It is true that the health diplomacy implemented by Madagascar at the beginning of the health crisis made a strong impression, projecting the island and its president Andry Rajoelina to the forefront of the African political and media scene, even worldwide. elected president in 2019 after a violent election crisis having opposed him to outgoing President Marc Ravalomanana.

In March 2020, when Europe was already hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, alarmist speeches announced the imminence of a african humanitarian disaster, reproducing a pessimistic vision always imagining “Africa in place of the dead”

The same logic is at work 18 months later after the detection in southern Africa of the variant called Omicron. South Africa and seven other countries are put in solitary confinement.

However, the idea that African countries could be better prepared than Europe or the United States to face the health crisis is beginning to emerge. Like its African neighbours, Madagascar would benefit from the youth of its population and the experience of community medicine, in addition to the protection offered by its insularity.

On April 9, 2020, the president of Rajoelina says, during a television and radio broadcast, that a plant from the Malagasy pharmacopoeia, artemisia (Anniversary Artemisia), would provide the active ingredient for a treatment of Covid-19. About ten days later, he announced during a second intervention the forthcoming distribution of Covid-organics (CVO) to the population of his country. Andry Rajoelina demonstrated the harmlessness of this remedy that day by publicly taking a few sips of the drink. CVO, developed by the Malagasy Institute for Applied Research (IMRA), takes the form of sachets of dry herbs to be infused and bottled drinks.

Andry Rajoelina defends tooth and nail the Covid-organics (Africanews, May 13, 2020).

The media coverage of Covid-organics

The media operation becomes diplomatic on April 29, 2020, when the Malagasy president presents the CVO after a African Union bureau meeting. Following the meeting, African and Caribbean leaders charter planes bound for Antananarivo to receive doses of CVO: the Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Tanzania, Chad, Comoros and Haiti are among the first recipients of the Malagasy remedy.

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This inter-African solidarity operation, organized from a country that often receives international aid, was a milestone. The media and social networks in Africa and Europe commented extensively on the Malagasy initiative. The favorable reactions seemed to come mainly from the African continent; the distribution of the CVO was part of debates on health autonomy and the political and economic independence of Africa. In Madagascar, however, newspapers and social networks did not fail to caricature the presidential diplomatic gesture, expressing concerns, even opposition, in the face of the emerging health strategy.

“There is no miracle cure”. In April 2020, the South African weekly Mail & Guardian reports the doubts of experts from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Provided by the author

From the fall of 2020, CVO diplomacy was rendered obsolete by the arrival of vaccines. At the end of November 2020, the Malagasy government, refusing an alignment with the new health order, announced its refusal to participate in the Covax Facility, the global initiative to immunize people in the poorest countries. However, on March 20, 2021, Andry Rajoelina finally gave in authorizing vaccines against Covid-19 in Madagascar – not without declaring that he and his family will continue to trust the CVO exclusively.

Plant care in Madagascar

From the start of the Covid-19 crisis in Madagascar, sales of medicinal plants increased; their prices are skyrocketing.

On the island, they are commonly used as medicine. There are many ways to obtain and prepare them. They are simply harvested on the outskirts of the villages as part of family medicine, prescribed by the soothsayers-healers ombiasy, sold in markets or on the roadside; they are also processed and packaged by the local pharmaceutical industry.

Therapeutic itineraries often combine different types of care, making therapeutic pluralism Standard. From the XNUMXthe, the so-called traditional therapists appropriated the treatments of European medicine, as shown by the historian Gwyn Campbell.

Madagascar has an exceptional endemic flora. Ethno-pharmacological surveys regularly reveal effective and promising molecules extracted from plants already in use in the Malagasy pharmacopoeia. Ironically, the plant that has become famous thanks to the health crisis is not endemic to Madagascar. The main active component of CVO isannual mugwort – in fact originating in East Asia and belonging to the Chinese pharmacopoeia. Known for its antipyretic and anti-inflammatory properties, it has been used for several years in Madagascar in the symptomatic treatment of malaria.

Artemisia, the main active substance of Covid-organic

The cultivation and use of artemisia are supported on the African continent by a French NGO through a network of "houses of artemisia", founded by a french humanitarian. In October 2020, the Head of State announcement the creation of a company for the production of phytotherapeutic drugs, Pharmalagasy, specializing in "non-chemical" products, with the primary objective of marketing CVO in Africa. An industrial and commercial strategy then takes shape.

Several instances, such as the French Academy of Medicine, have rejected the curative and preventive efficacy of artemisia, the main active substance of CVO, in the fight against Covid. The positive and negative assessments of the CVO have often been interpreted through the prism of international relations. The rumor that Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed his support for the CVO had some success before being denied. In one interview granted to France 24, the Malagasy president assured that the European critics of the CVO betrayed an inability to accept a remedy proposed by a poorer country.

Decolonizing diplomacy?

It is to Africa that the Malagasy health "mission" is addressed first. This diplomatic posture raises questions in view of the historical ambivalence of the island's relations with the continent. The Malagasy saga of the CVO allowed a momentary reformulation of Madagascar's relations with Africa - relations long informed by affiliations to the French sphere of influence (designated elusively by the term “Francafrique”

Relations between Madagascar and Africa have been experienced in a postcolonial triangulation – France acting as a mediating force or as a common adversary.

Andry Rajoelina: “The problem is that it comes from Africa” (France 24, May 11, 2020).

In 1963, Madagascar was indeed one of the founding members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), but Malagasy diplomacy continued in the first post-independence decade in close cooperation with the former colonial power. As noted Didier Nativel, Madagascar opted for a close relationship with France, before embarking on a rapprochement with West Africa through its nascent institutions. The 1972 socialist revolution in this respect marks a turning point in Malagasy diplomacy. Madagascar therefore enters the camp of the non-aligned under the impetus of Didier Ratsiraka, future president then Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Better-known actors, like Cuba, have long pointed the way to medical internationalism from the South. Cuban “doctor diplomacy” has thus distinguished itself in theaters of intervention in South America, Africa and Asia. During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, Cuban doctors visited both in the North and in the Global South. These humanitarian deployments are effective responses to the coloniality of diplomatic instruments (whether they relate to religion, human rights or global health).

The discussions on patents for vaccines against Covid-19 and the struggles for influence between the powers holding them have, Conversely, recalled the scandalous terms of thevaccine imperialism. The vagaries of the vaccination campaign in Madagascar, using Covishield – a vaccine with an identical composition to AstraZeneca but manufactured in India – raised fears of the emergence of new borders and illegalities by hindering the movement of vaccinated people. Indeed, the recognition of the Covishield vaccine by European countries was delayed for several months – the France not recognizing it until July 2021. The impact of these procrastination on the vaccine skepticism in Madagascar was not negligible.

The new diplomatic proposal occurs around the heroization of the Malagasy president. Andry Rajoelina has been featured by some African publications as a “new Sankara”. The Burkinabé president-martyr, assassinated in 1983, advocated distrust of external aid and remains today the posthumous apostle of a united, emancipated and self-sufficient Africa. At the end of August 2020, the Malagasy daily Noon Madagasikara resumed a survey carried out in Benin in which the Malagasy president was placed in the top five of the “visionaries who inspire the young generations” in Africa. The terms "pride" and "dignity", related to the Malagasy presidential intervention, were then recurrent in African publications and on social networks on the continent.

On the use of symbols of independence

The Malagasy streak of resistance to the global health order has mobilized different aspects of the political imagination in Africa and Madagascar. The pan-African operation initiated by President Rajoelina is part of a real strategy of conquest and consolidation of power. In their book The enigma and the paradox, M. Razafindrakoto, F. Roubaud and J. M Wachtsberger note a manipulation of royal symbols in the making of Rajoelina's charisma, confirmed after his election.

Return of the crown from the Dais of Ranavalona II to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.
Provided by the author

La controversial construction of a "colosseum" at the site of Rova of Antananarivo, the former royal enclosure, seat of the Merina Empire, intended to promote Malagasy national pride, is an example of the appropriation of royal history modeled on a very Eurocentric political and cultural symbol. An article from November 2020 critically reviews France's handover of the decorative piece of a royal canopy, presented as the return of the crownof Ranavalona II. naming the case “coronavirus”, the author seems to suggest through the use of this whimsical lexical amalgam a link between the use of royal symbols and the instrumentalization of the pandemic.

Political and economic opportunism gave birth to the Covid-organic saga, a concoction that has become a symbol of African resistance. The Malagasy diplomatic strategy succeeded in making Rajoelina an ephemeral standard-bearer of a legitimately desired health autonomy in a context of increased global inequalities. At the risk, however, of reinforcing already significant vaccine skepticism on the continent.


This article is published in partnership with the Terrain journal blog.

Dominique Somda, Anthropologist, HUMA (Institute for Humanities in Africa), University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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