Africa’s new Covid wave ‘like nothing we’ve seen before’

Just 1.2% of the African population are fully vaccinated, according to the WHO

A family of vendors pose for a photo before sleeping next to their items to be sold at Nakasero Market in Kampala, Uganda. Photograph: Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty

A family of vendors pose for a photo before sleeping next to their items to be sold at Nakasero Market in Kampala, Uganda. Photograph: Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty

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Covid-19 infection rates are rapidly increasing in Africa, with many countries reporting a previously unseen spread of the disease.

“The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before,” the World Health Organisation’s Africa director, Matshidiso Moeti, said in an online briefing this week. “The rampant spread of more contagious variants pushes the threat to Africa up to a whole new level.”

After increasing for six weeks running, Covid cases in Africa rose 25 per cent – to almost 202,000 – in the week ending June 27th.

Most countries on the African continent closed their borders and instituted early lockdowns last year, limiting the transmission of Covid-19. The huge increase in cases over the past six weeks, fuelled by the arrival of the more transmissible Delta variant, has taken many healthcare professionals by surprise.

The WHO says the Delta variant has been detected in 97 per cent of samples sequenced in Uganda and 79 per cent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The confirmed number of cases across the African continent is now close to 5.5 million, has now reached 5,394,709 cases,with more than 140,976000 deaths, though the real figures may be much higher.

In Gulu, a city in northern Uganda, one local with Covid-19 symptoms says he waited five hours at a health centre for a test before being turned away.

The east African country has been back in a planned 42-day lockdown since June 18th, with most forms of transport banned, schools closed and hospitals struggling to get the supplies needed to treat patients. Market vendors have been ordered to sleep in their workplace and not return home. The lockdown badly affects millions of people who live hand to mouth, and are now unable to earn enough to buy food or cover other expenses.

Private hospitals in Uganda have also been accused of profiteering. Anti-corruption activist Cissy Kagaba, who lost both parents to Covid-19, said her family was charged $6,000 for her father’s stay in an intensive care unit.

‘Rwanda really tried’

In neighbouring Rwanda, Eddy Nyarwaya, a teacher and the executive director of the Rwanda Institute for Conflict Transformation and Peace Building, says he knows many people who have contracted Covid-19 over the past month who did not realise what they had until quite late.

“They thought it is maybe flu, [they were] feeling weak, dizzy,” he says on the phone from Kigali. “It is really shocking to everyone and it makes people fear.”

“Rwanda really, really tried, and did its best to control the Covid,” he adds. “Rwanda really tried to control the deaths, but also the economy was dying.”

Donal Connolly, who works for a solar energy company in the Zambian capital Lusaka, has just recovered from Covid-19, which he contracted there. “Here, it’s pretty bad. Cases are really spiking. You’re starting to hear more and more people from all walks of life getting it. Our whole office has now moved fully remote where possible.”

As in many other African countries, he says vaccine uptake in Zambia was initially slow. “During April, when I got my vaccine, there was a real push to get people vaccinated, but there had been hardly anyone going,” says Connolly.

On Thursday, Sierra Leone, in west Africa, announced a new curfew, a halt on religious gatherings, and a limit of 50 attendees at funerals and weddings. In a televised speech made more than three months after the end of a year-long state of emergency, President Julius Maada Bio said 72 per cent of beds in treatment and care centres were now occupied. “We believe we must take urgent and necessary steps,” he said.

Vaccine hesitancy

Only 15 million people, or 1.2 percent of the African population, are fully vaccinated, according to the WHO. This is because of the lack of vaccines available, as well as hesitancy from local populations conscious of the relatively low number of cases in many African countries until now.

On June 30th, heads of the World Bank Group, International Monetary Fund, WHO and World Trade Organisation issued a statement following the first meeting of a task force on Covid-19 vaccines and treatment for developing countries.

“We are deeply concerned about the limited vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and support for deliveries available to developing countries,” the statement said. “Urgent action is needed now to arrest the rising human toll due to the pandemic, and to halt further divergence in the economic recovery between advanced economies and the rest.”

The European Union has come under fire for not recognising the India-produced version of AstraZeneca (Covishield) as valid for its EU digital Covid certificate, despite recognising the same vaccine produced in Europe (Vaxzervria).

In a statement, the African Union Commission and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said this put “at risk the equitable treatment of persons having received their vaccines in countries profiting from the EU-supported Covax Facility, including the majority of the African Union member states”.

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