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Coronavirus second wave threatens to swamp Africa

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A growing coronavirus second wave is threatening to overwhelm fragile healthcare systems across Africa after months of relatively mild impact across the continent, officials have warned.

Authorities in Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as international organisations, say hospital capacity and oxygen supplies are running out as the continent-wide death rate this month surpassed the global average for the first time.

“It is very severe,” Dr John Nkengasong, head of the AU’s Africa Centres for Disease Control, told reporters last week. He appealed to African leaders to subsidise masks because “for now [they] are the best vaccines that we have”. 

Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, warned that doctors would soon face “tough decisions” over whom to treat.

“The biggest indicator that will put us under pressure is the number of deaths,” he said last week. “We must keep working to save as many people as we possibly can given the limitations that are clear in [African] health systems.”

In recent weeks, daily case rates across the continent have surged to roughly twice the previous peak in July and August and are likely to rise further as the impact of travel during the December holiday period became clearer, said Dr Nkengasong.

Chart showing the number of new cases of coronavirus in the African Union, South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, NIgeria and Zimbabwe

“What is driving it . . . is very clearly human behaviour,” he said, arguing that, after strong compliance with mitigation measures last year, “prevention fatigue” had set in, with people neglecting social distancing practices.

The number of cases remains relatively small in most African countries, which have some of the youngest populations in the world. The continent has recorded just over 3.1m infections and roughly 75,000 deaths in a population of 1.3bn, although health officials say that some countries have under-reported.

But the numbers have risen 18 per cent in the past month. Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa experienced an increase of more than 25 per cent over the period. After three months with 100-200 confirmed cases a day, Nigeria recorded more than 1,000 in a single day for the first time last month and on January 6 reported a record 1,664. Of about 1.27m confirmed infections in South Africa so far, around 200,000 have been recorded since the start of 2021.

Death rates in 20 African countries are now higher than the global average of 2.2 per cent, with fatalities rising by more than 30 per cent in the past month in Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa.

African countries struggled to source medical equipment in the early months as affluent nations bought up supplies. They have been similarly outgunned on accessing vaccines.

A vendor sells face masks in Bamako, Mali. As the pandemic intensifies, African countries are tightening restrictions, with curbs on large gatherings, school closures and mandatory mask wearing © Annie Risemberg/AFP/Getty

While 600m doses have been targeted for the continent by Covax, the WHO-backed international facility set up to pool orders by poorer nations, countries are still waiting for this supply and lack the financial clout to compete with richer nations in ordering directly from manufacturers.

The African Union last week announced it had secured 270m doses for its 54 member countries, which have a population of about 1.2bn. The vaccines have been ordered from Pfizer, Oxford/AstraZeneca via India’s Serum Institute, and Johnson & Johnson. The AU hopes to begin rolling them out by April. 

Officials in some countries, including Nigeria, have promised that the first jabs would begin this month. However, only South Africa has struck a deal outside Covax with a manufacturer, for 1.5m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute.

The AU doses are in addition to the Covax programme, which is aimed at helping 92 developing countries access vaccines, though it will only cover about 20 per cent of their populations. The AU aims to vaccinate 60 per cent of its population within two to three years.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who is chairing the AU, said last week that until June, Covax supplies “may not extend beyond the needs of frontline healthcare workers, and may thus not be enough to contain the ever-increasing toll of the pandemic in Africa”. 

As the pandemic intensifies, many countries are tightening restrictions, introducing curbs on large gatherings, school closures and mandatory mask wearing.

Zimbabwe reimposed a national lockdown this month, while last week South Africa — where a more infectious variant of the virus has driven its spread — closed land borders. 

But full lockdowns will be difficult to institute, given the devastating impact of last year’s shutdowns on largely informal economies. The IMF has projected African GDP contracted 3 per cent in 2020.

“It’s going to take time for vaccines to reach all the populations,” said Dr Faisal Shuaib, chief executive of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency. “Face masks, social distancing, washing of hands, sanitisers . . . we need to revert to those interventions that will save lives and sustain livelihoods.”



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China lands spacecraft on Mars

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China has landed a spacecraft containing a rover on Mars, according to state media, in a further sign of its bold ambitions in the sphere.

The rover was part of the Tianwen-1 unmanned mission launched in July last year. Tianwen means “questions to heaven” and was named after a poem by Chinese poet Qu Yuan.

The mission, which was described by Chinese media as a “new major milestone” and the “first step in China’s planetary exploration of the solar system”, was intended to match the US by successfully landing on the red planet.

The Global Times reported that the lander and the rover from the Tianwen-1 probe reached a plain on Mars called Utopia Planitia on early Saturday morning local time, citing information from the China National Space Administration.

The Tianwen-1 probe’s lander and rover separated with the orbiter at about 4am, after which it had a three hour flight before entering Mars’ atmosphere, according to the newspaper.

The spacecraft then “spent around nine minutes decelerating, hovering for obstacle avoidance and cushioning, before its soft landing”. The rover is named Zhurong after a Chinese god of fire, and is 1.85m and weighs 240kg. It is expected to transverse the planet for about 92 days.

The probe was launched into space on July 23 by the Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang launch pad in Hainan province, in the south of the country.

The achievement of the Mars landing is part of a wider expansion of China’s space programme. The country’s engineers launched the first part of its permanent space station into the Earth’s orbit late last month.

In 2018, China for the first time launched more vessels into orbit than any other nation.

The US views China’s efforts in space in strategic terms. “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” according to the annual threat assessment published by the office of the US director of national intelligence.



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Iron ore sinks from record high on concerns over China crackdown

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The scorching rally that propelled the price of steel-making commodity iron ore to a record high came to a shuddering halt on Friday on concerns China will crack down on speculative activity.

The main iron ore futures contract in Singapore fell as much as 14 per cent to $190 a tonne before recovering to $209, while there were also big drops in China where the most active contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange slumped almost 8 per cent.

The sell-off came as the local government in Tangshan, China’s main steel-making city, said it would examine illegal behaviour and suspend production at mills found to be manipulating market prices by spreading rumours and hoarding material, according to reports from Reuters and Bloomberg.

“China’s central government seems to be very concerned about this major input for its steel-intensive economy,” said Tom Price, head of commodities strategy at Liberum. “I think what the pullback reflects is the government trying to rein in prices.”

Line chart of $ per tonne showing Iron ore prices have fallen after a strong rally

Authorities in China have sought to cool hot commodity markets, with Premier Li Keqiang calling this week for stable prices. Iron was trading at $90 a tonne a year ago and hit a record high of $230 this week. Tangshan, which accounts for 14 per cent of China’s steel output, has introduced production curbs as part of a crackdown on pollution.

However, these measures have been slow to take effect as mills in the rest of the country have rushed to crank up output to take advantage of reduced capacity in Tangshan and cash in on record domestic steel prices. A decision to remove the export tax rebate for some steel products on June 1 has also led to other mills increasing production.

As a result, China’s steel production hit a record level in March, with output up 19 per cent year on year to 94m tonnes, according to financial group ANZ. The firm said production was even higher in April, with exports up 20 per cent year on year. That in turn boosted iron ore, which climbed 35 per cent over the past month.

“What the Chinese government is trying to do is incrementally contain the steel market, mindful of the fact they have spent a fortune resurrecting their economy over the past 12 months and they don’t want to kill the recovery,” said Price. “The measures are quite clever.”

Iron ore has led a broad advance in commodity markets over the past year, fanning talk that another “supercycle” — a long period of high prices — has arrived.

That has been a boon for big iron producers such as Anglo-Australian company BHP and its Brazilian rival Vale, which require a price of just $50 a tonne to break even.

However, most analysts think the iron ore market will remain tight and prices elevated for the rest of the year. That view is based on rising steel demand outside China as big economies accelerate and while important producers in Australia are operating at full capacity.

“While the price has been thumped in the past couple of days, demand remains robust, helped by the fantastic margins the steel industry is enjoying,” said Andrew Glass, Singapore-based founder of Avatar Commodities.

Elsewhere, copper was set for its first weekly loss in more than a month amid worries that a tightening of credit in China could hit demand for the metal, used in everything from household goods to electric vehicles. Copper, which started the week at $10,412 a tonne, was trading at $10,245 on Friday.



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Biden says ‘strong reason’ to believe pipeline hackers are in Russia

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Joe Biden said the US government has “strong reason” to believe the hackers behind a massive cyber attack that shut the Colonial petroleum pipeline were based in Russia, as he urged Americans to not panic over temporary fuel shortages.

“We do not believe the Russian government was involved in this attack. But we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia. That is where it came from,” the US president said in a speech on Thursday afternoon at the White House.

“We have been in direct communication with Moscow about the imperative for responsible countries to take decisive action against these ransomware networks,” he added, noting he hoped to discuss the issue with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

The 5,500-mile pipeline system has capacity for 2.5m barrels a day of liquid fuels such as petrol diesel and jet fuel, which it carries from Gulf Coast refineries to major hubs in the north-east. The FBI has indicated that the shutdown was caused by a ransomware attack by hacking group DarkSide.

Cyber experts claim Russia tacitly allows ransomware gangs to operate in the country and will not prosecute them. In return, those criminals do not attack Russian companies and can be called upon to share their access to victims’ systems, experts say.

Last month, the US Treasury accused one of Russia’s intelligence services, the FSB, of “cultivating and co-opting” the notorious ransomware group Evil Corp, which has been sanctioned.

The Colonial pipeline — responsible for carrying almost half of the motor fuel used on the US east coast — began the process of fully reopening on Wednesday evening, five days after it was hit by a cyber attack that triggered a spate of panic-buying by motorists across the US south-east.

Biden said the US government expected a “region by region return to normalcy beginning this weekend and continuing into next week”. He urged Americans to avoid panic-buying petrol, and said he had called on state governors and local authorities to keep a lookout for any illegal price gouging by businesses.

“Don’t panic, number one. I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful, but this is a temporary situation,” Biden said. “Do not get more gas than you need in the next few days.”

Shortages at filling stations triggered by panic-buying continued on Thursday, with 70 per cent of stations in North Carolina running dry and about half in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, according to GasBuddy, a data provider.

The situation in some major urban hubs was beginning to improve, however. The amount of stations without fuel in Atlanta fell from a peak of 73 per cent overnight to 68 per cent by Thursday afternoon.

Colonial on Thursday morning said it had made “substantial progress” in bringing its operations back online and that all of its markets would begin receiving product by the afternoon.

Prices at the pump have continued to rise. National average petrol prices rose to $3.03 on Thursday, according to the AAA, an automobile association. They crossed the $3 a gallon threshold on Wednesday for the first time since 2014.

Gasoline futures retreated on the news of Colonial’s reopening, as traders anticipated supplies returning to normal. Contracts for June delivery slipped 7 cents to $2.08, their lowest level since April in Thursday afternoon trading.



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