Southern Times Writer
Windhoek – The World Health Organisation says the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic is in Europe right now.
But Africa should not relax as the fourth wave of the outbreak is projected to ravage the continent in coming weeks, stretching through the festive season and into 2022.
And the warnings coming out of Europe as regards vaccination and adherence to health protocols should make Africa pause and take heed, particularly in the south which has the highest COVID-19 infection and fatality rates on the continent.
According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, as of November 10, 2021, the continent had recorded 8,548,575 cumulative cases of the new coronavirus. These had resulted in 219,793 deaths and 7,947,329 recoveries. Nearly half of these cases (3.9 million), were in Southern Africa.
What is more, less than 10 percent of Africans have been vaccinated against the virus. And Europe, which has vaccination rates above 60 percent is in a panic as the fourth wave hits.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the government was even giving booster vaccines to adults as a means of tackling the surge in infections.
“A fourth COVID wave is now with us in full force,” he said. “We are at the start of a very difficult few weeks.”
Available data shows that most new infections in Europe are being recorded in unvaccinated people.
Slovakia last week reported record numbers of daily cases, and 69 percent of these were amongst the unvaccinated.
Professor Andrew Preston of the University of Bath biology and biochemistry department said the surge could be down to poor vaccination rates and lack of adherence to health protocols.
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been stressing the importance of maintaining some restrictions to reduce a surge in cases.
“Vaccines alone will not end the pandemic,” he said. “Vaccines do not replace the need for public health measures (which) remain important in every country.”
African countries have been paying attention to developments in Europe and taking heed of warnings such as those emanating from the World Health Organisation.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla has been urging people to get vaccinated “ahead of the imminent fourth wave that could hit the country soon”.
“We are not oblivious to the fact that we are not yet out of trouble. The virus is still in our midst and every day we record a number of infections. We have all learned over the last 20 months that it is not over. There is going to be another resurgence of the infection and, therefore, we must be ready and protect all our people,” he said.
He also said, “Many of our colleagues in the SADC (Southern African Development Community) region are still struggling to access vaccines for their people. However, we are struggling to get the people to come to the vaccine. It’s embarrassing.”
On the slightly brighter side, some experts believe that continuing efforts to vaccinate populations and the cumulative impact of restrictions occasioned by prior waves of the pandemic mean the anticipated December surge may not be as severe as before.
“My feeling is … that the fourth wave is not going to be as bad as the third wave … but not as good as the best possible experience, had we attained a high coverage for vaccination,” said Prof Johnny Myers of the University of Cape Town.
“It’s not going to be as good as, for example, if you look at the same situation for Portugal, you will see they have had a third wave after they had a successful vaccination campaign and this completely flattened their third death wave.”
Regardless, Prof Myers cautioned that even a 50 percent reduction in mortality in the fourth wave compared to the third wave would still amount to about 55,000 deaths in South Africa.
The Acting Director-General of South Africa’s Health Department, Dr Nicholas Crisp, also said a fourth wave was more or less guaranteed, and its impact would depend on vaccination rates, social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing.
But WHO says around five of Africa’s 55 countries will meet the year-end target of fully vaccinating at least 40 percent of their populations. To date, SADC member states Seychelles and Mauritius have met the target, as well as Morocco in North Africa.
SADC member Zimbabwe is among the countries hopeful of meeting the year-end target, though its globally acclaimed vaccination programme has taken a hit as fewer people presented themselves for inoculation as the third wave petered out and complacency set in.
This week, Zimbabwean Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said, “… we need to remain vigilant to ensure that we attain our set target of achieving herd immunity by year end. To this end, let us all ensure that all those who are yet to be vaccinated present themselves for inoculation. The Government would like to assure the nation that the Government has procured adequate stocks for this exercise.”
The Health Ministry added, “As a people, we need to get the herd immunity by year end and as Government we have strategies. We will go into schools and make them vaccination centres.
“Our population is mainly young people so we are going to go for them and we will be relying on the media as well to spread the word so that people get vaccinated. Most countries are already experiencing the fourth wave and people are dying so we want to encourage everyone to get vaccinated.”
The head of a major hospital in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo, Prof Solwayo Ngwenya warned about the dangers of complacency.
“High temperatures that we are recording have no impact on new variants of the fourth wave. What is critical about this virus and its variants is the human-to-human contact. Once you allow the population to mix and mingle freely, the virus spreads slowly reaching a peak after two to three months, then causing death and pandemonium.
“Most people sleep walk into this phase only to ‘wake up’ when it’s too late. The fourth wave will, unfortunately, be hitting us in December and January when the weather will be hot. The call to social distance, hand-sanitise, and wear face masks properly must be reinforced.”