By Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
Harare – As winter sets in, a combination of cold weather, a dropping of the guard on health protocols, the emergence of virus variants and poor access to vaccines has set Southern Africa on edge amidst fears of a devastating third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Lancet medical journal, the second wave of COVID-19, which began towards the end of 2020, was characterised by an infection rate 30 percent higher than the first wave.
Lancet projects that on the basis of a first wave that progressed more slowly in Africa than the rest of the world and an aggressive second, the third wave could be the most brutal yet.
“Our analysis showed that the African continent had a more severe second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic than the first, and highlights the importance of examining multiple epidemiological variables down to the regional and country levels over time,” the journal said.
On May 30, South Africa – which bears Africa’s heaviest burden of COVID-19 infections and deaths – reported that four of its nine provinces (Free State, Northern Cape, North West and Gauteng) had already been hit by the third wave.
Announcing an escalation from level one to level two lockdown last week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the country had recorded a sustained increase of cases.
“Over the last seven days, we have seen an average of 3,745 daily new infections. This is an increase of 31 percent on the previous week, and an increase of 66 percent on the week before that. The proportion of COVID-19 tests that are positive has more than doubled in the last month from around four percent to more than 11 percent, even as we have increased testing across the country,” he said.
“We are advised that a positivity rate of over five percent is a cause for concern. The provinces of Free State, Northern Cape, North West and Gauteng have reached the threshold of a third wave of infections. It may only be a matter of time before the country as a whole will have entered a third wave.”
President Ramaphosa blamed the surge in cases to “pandemic fatigue”, which has seen people disregarding essential health protocols.
South Africa’s level two lockdown includes an 11pm-4am curfew, a limit on gatherings of 100 people indoors and 250 outdoors, and the closure of non-essential establishments like restaurants, bars and fitness centres at 10pm.
Vaccination, a critical component in the fight against COVID-19, has been slow across Africa and the continent accounts for less than two percent of doses administered globally.
Most African countries have only had access to a single batch of doses supplied by COVAX – a vaccine sharing platform for low and middle-income countries. As of last week, the facility had shipped at least 76 million COVID-19 vaccines to 126 countries as it struggles to secure more jabs due to hoarding by wealthy countries.
Namibia’s President Hage Geingob has described the situation as “vaccine apartheid” and while President Ramaphosa has been at the forefront of getting a waiver on intellectual property rights so as to allow anyone with capacity to manufacture vaccines.
At the 74th World Health Assembly, Botswana’s Health and Wellness Minister Edwin Dikoloti called for mRNA vaccines to be manufactured in Africa. These vaccines teach human cells how to make proteins that trigger an immune response.
COVAX urgently needs 20 million for the second quarter of 2021 to cover supply interruptions triggered by increased demand for vaccines in India, where the AstraZeneca brand is made.
The surge in cases in South Africa, for example, also brought to the fore the country’s lagging vaccine rollout as only about 1.5 percent of the country’s 60 million people have been inoculated.
Africa Centre for Diseases Control Director Dr John Nkengasong has warned about the effects of delayed vaccination.
“If the delay continues, that would be catastrophic, meeting our vaccination schedule would become problematic,” he said recently.
Namibia, which commenced its inoculation programme in March using Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines, has been emphasising the importance of guarding against complacency, while also remaining on alert for emerging virus variants.
The government has reduced the permissible size of public gatherings from 100 to 50 and banned contact sports.
Health Minister Dr Kalumbi Shangula said genome sequencing conducted at the University of Namibia indicated that the COVID-19 variant discovered in South Africa late last year was present in 60 percent of the samples analysed in February, while the British variant has also been found.
“Namibia will do well to learn lessons from other countries, where the pandemic has overwhelmed health systems. The onus of responsibility rests upon all of us as a nation to prevent such horrific scenarios,” Dr Kalumbi said this week.
“We can do it by complying with the public health measures that have been put in place. We can do it by making the preventive and hygiene practices part and parcel of our daily lives. This is particularly important as we approach the winter season where people tend to be close together in close settings and where influenza illnesses tend to proliferate.”
Dr Shangula said Namibia had established 383 COVID-19 vaccination sites, 181 of which are fixed, 154 are mobile and 48 are outreach points.
In Zimbabwe, authorities recently placed the Midlands town of Kwekwe under a strict lockdown following the detection of the Indian variant (B.1.617).
Africa CDC head Dr Nkengasong said: “It is better to be over-prepared and not have a similar scenario (as the mass deaths in India) than to be surprised by the scenario. What is happening in India cannot be ignored. The increasing number of cases in India is catastrophic for any health system to bear.”
To up the fight against the pandemic, the heads of the world’s global financing, health and trade agencies on Tuesday buttressed a recent IMF recommendation of an injection of at least US$50 billion in new investment by governments.
This, the IMF has said, would increase vaccine manufacturing capacity, supply and trade flows; which would in turn accelerate the equitable distribution of diagnostics, oxygen, treatments, medical supplies and vaccines.
In a statement, the leaders of the IMF, World Bank Group, World Health Organisation and World Trade Organisation (respectively Ms Kristalina Georgieva, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Mr David Malpass and Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) urged governments to act decisively or risk continued waves and explosive outbreaks of COVID-19 as well as more transmissible and deadly variants, thereby undermining global recovery.
“By now it has become abundantly clear there will be no broad-based recovery without an end to the health crisis. Access to vaccination is key to both,” they said. “At an estimated US$50 billion, it will bring the pandemic to an end faster in the developing world, reduce infections and loss of lives; accelerate economic recovery, and generate some US$9 trillion in additional global output by 2025.”