Health authorities in Southern Africa are on high alert amid a rise in confirmed cases of the Indian variant of COVID-19, which has wreaked havoc on the Asian subcontinent.
The variant – named B.1.617 – has been reported in Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Namibia said it was yet to detect presence of B.1617 but was on high alert as it had recorded cases of the South African and UK variants.
Botswana said it first recorded the variant on May 13.
“As at 16 May 2021, the B.1.617 variant was confirmed in two cases that were part of 383 people who were tested for COVID-19. From this number, 43 tested positive, with two showing the B.1.617 variant as already alluded to,” the Health and Wellness Ministry said. Authorities are conducting contact tracing.
Secretary for Health Mr Christopher Nyanga said, “The public is advised to remain vigilant and minimise the spread of COVID-19 by following the already outlined preventative measures such as washing of hands with soap or use of a hand sanitiser, wearing of face masks, avoiding crowded places/social distancing and avoiding non-essential movement.”
While warning about a third wave of the pandemic, South African Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said the country had recorded four cases of the variant.
“We are deeply concerned about the threat of ‘variants of concern’ and these reports demonstrate that the issue is complicated,” he said. “Even though 95 percen of those infected have recovered, COVID-19 cases have started to rise significantly and we may find ourselves in bad way. Of concern, is the emergence of the B.1.351 variant in our country and the importation of B.1617.2 variant from India.”
In Zambia, a 42-year-old man was diagnosed with the Indian variant this week, Health Secretary Dr Kennedy Malama confirmed.
Dr Malama said the government was upping monitoring at ports of entry, with particular emphasis on travellers from high-risk regions.
Zimbabwe’s Vice-President Dr Constantino Chiwenga, who is the Health and Child Care Minister, on Wednesday confirmed one case of the Indian variant and issued a travel advisory.
“People traveling from or transiting from India will be subject to mandatory quarantine at a designated quarantine centre and at their own cost. These travellers will be subjected to a Covid 19 test on arrival despite the status of their travelling certificate,” VP Chiwenga said.
He reiterated the need to adhere to COVID-19 containment measures, and for people to get vaccinated.
Other countries in Africa that have reported the variant are Kenya and Uganda.
Executive Director in the Health and Social Services Ministry, Mr Ben Nangombe, this week called for vigilance in adhering to COVID-19 protocols.
“Recent weeks have witnessed a steep spike in the numbers of COVID-19. On average 19 infections are reported in all the 14 regions of the country per day. Of more concern is the number of more severe cases, and higher numbers of hospitalisations and deaths that are being reported daily.
“Increased hospitalisations have exerted pressure on the available capacity of Intensive Care treatment both in public and private sectors. In this context and increased lax compliance with COVID 19 public health guidelines, the ministry of health strongly cautions all members of the public to comply with the laid down protocols,” Mr Nangombe said.
The Director of the Africa Centres for Disease, Dr John Nkengasong advised that: “It’s better to be over-prepared … What is happening in India cannot be ignored; the increasing number of cases in India is catastrophic for any healthy system to bear.”
Reporting by Mpho Tebele in Gaborone, Tiri Masawi in Windhoek & Jeff Kapembwa in Lusaka
‘Be more transparent on vaccines’
Gaborone – The Southern African Development Community (SADC) risks being flooded with false information about COVID-19 and hesitancy to receive the jab if it does not lift the veil on its vaccination programmes, a report by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) warns.
The report titled “The Unvaccinated: Equality not Charity in Southern Africa” says
SADC member states have failed to varying degrees to meet their international legal obligations to ensure equitable access to vaccines and to otherwise guarantee and ensure the rights to health, life and equal benefit from scientific progress.
“Involving concerned stakeholders in the design of vaccine rollouts ensures that a variety of perspectives, experiences and challenges faced in the process are considered and is necessary as a matter of good public health and under international human rights law and standards,” the report says.
The ICJ says a “veil of secrecy” and lack of transparency in rollout plans, strategies and procedures also extends to acquisition procedures and choice of vaccines.
“… States, including SADC member states, are obliged to not only ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines but safe and effective vaccines of adequate quality. In terms of public health imperatives, this lack of information and transparency provides greater opportunities for false information and myths about vaccines and COVID-19 to spread, thereby increasing the risk of vaccine hesitancy,” the report says.
The report also says in most SADC countries, there is lack of clarity on availability or lack thereof of free vaccination of non-citizens.
The ICJ calls on SADC member states to co-operate in vaccine acquisition and distribution, and to assist one another to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and related information.
“The (SADC) Secretariat should provide clear guidance to the member states on their human rights obligations pertaining to vaccine access. SADC should take effective action to address the failure of member States to act according to their obligations under international law, including under regional agreements,” the report says.
Meanwhile, SADC Executive Secretary Dr Stergomena Tax told a recent meeting of health ministers from the bloc that while the region’s COVID-19 general outlook had been improving, the pandemic’s trajectory remained unpredictable.
She noted a decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases, except in a few member states, and commended countries for their robust implementation of public health and socio-economic measures in dealing with the pandemic.
Dr. Tax said while the SADC region continued to appeal for equitable access to vaccines, emphasis should also be placed on the enhancement of capacity, both at regional and national levels, in research and manufacturing of medicines and vaccines, and in the search for any other solutions.