Gaborone – By the time you read this, Africa will have surpassed 6.3 million cases and 160,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the first infection was recorded on the continent in early 2020.
And the figure is rising, with Southern Africa remaining the hotspot of infections and deaths.
Conversely, less than 1.4 percent of Africa’s population has been vaccinated, while in other parts of the world economies are reopening as societies approach or surpass herd immunity thresholds.
South Africa’s cases, at the time of writing, were 2,311,232. The country had also reported 67,676 deaths.
In all, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), at least 23 of Africa’s 55 countries are officially in the grip of the third wave of the pandemic – and a fourth wave looms large on the horizon. Six of those countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe – are in Southern Africa.
Further, a surge in infections has been recorded in 26 countries, and seven of them – Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – are again in Southern Africa. In July, 65 percent of new infections were in the region.
Such statistics have seen the Africa CDC and UN World Health Organisation formally classifying Southern Africa as a COVID-19 hotspot.
In a recent brief, the Africa CDC said 38 percent of African Union member states were reporting cases and deaths higher than global trends. In 53 countries, 96 percent of new infections were from community transmissions.
Warning of a possible fourth wave, the Africa CDC said, “Fifty-three (96 percent) of African Union member states have experienced at least a second wave, 23 (42 percent) have experienced a third wave, and one country (Tunisia) has experienced a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.”
The organisation said the number of new cases reported daily in Africa from February 15 to July 13 were higher than figures seen at the peak of the second wave.
Countries that accounted for 78 percent pf new COVID-19 cases were South Africa, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Libya; while the countries reporting the highest incidence (new cases per 100,000 population) were Seychelles, Tunisia, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa.
Africa CDC Director Dr John Nkengasong this week said; “With third and fourth waves of COVID-19 sweeping across parts of Africa, we cannot overstate the importance of everyone doing their best right now to encourage people to keep the virus at bay.”
And in an online update, WHO Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said deaths had climbed steeply for the past five weeks.
“This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point. The number one priority for African countries is boosting oxygen production to give critically ill patients fighting chance,” she said.
And WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the media that: “We are experiencing a worsening public health emergency that further threatens lives, livelihoods and a sound global economic recovery. It is definitely worse in places that have very few vaccines, but the pandemic is not over anywhere.”
Zambia’s Secretary for Health, Dr Kennedy Malama also underscored the threat of a third wave that would stretch from the fourth quarter of the year into 2022.
But that is not all.
A new report by UNAIDS says access to COVID-19 vaccines remains unequal and this has worsened the health situation of people living with HIV and AIDS.
The report – titled “Confronting Inequalities” – says of mid-2021, vaccines were scarcely available in low-income and lower middle-income countries that are home to more than half of people living with HIV globally. Further, access to HIV testing and treatment declined during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa for example, for example, there was a 48 percent drop in HIV testing after the first national lockdown was imposed in April 2020. There were also fewer new HIV diagnoses and a marked drop in treatment initiation. This occurred as 28 000 HIV community health care workers were shifted from HIV testing to COVID-19symptom screening,” UNAIDS says.
Citing studies in England and South Africa, the report adds that the risk of dying from COVID-19 among people living with HIV and AIDS is double that of the general population.
“In Sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to two-thirds (67 percent) of people living with HIV, less than three percent had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by July 2021.”
UNAIDS says vaccines are being kept out of the reach of the world’s most vulnerable people by rich countries and big corporations that tightly control production and delivery of supplies for profit.
“COVID-19 vaccines that could save millions of lives trickle into developing countries as waves of infection threaten to overwhelm their under-financed health systems. At the end of June 2021, just one percent of people in low-income countries had received at least one dose of a potentially life-saving COVID-19 vaccine compared to 46 percent in high income countries,” the report highlights.
The UN agency goes on: “In Sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds (67 percent) of people living with HIV resided in 2020, the vaccination coverage in June 2021 was in Equatorial Guinea (19 percent), Botswana and Zimbabwe (nine percent) each and Namibia (six percent. No other countries in the region exceeded five percent.”
UNAIDS Executive Director Ms Winnie Byanyima said, “Rich countries in Europe are preparing to enjoy the summer as their populations have easy access to COVID-19 vaccines while the global South is in crisis.
“We have failed to learn the lessons of HIV when millions were denied life-saving medicines and died because of inequalities in access. This is totally unacceptable.”