The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa has exceeded the 10 million mark with the rapid transmission of the Omicron variant, which has surfaced in at least 33 African nations.
Data from the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) released on Sunday showed that as of Saturday evening, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa has reached 10,028,508 while the death toll stands at 231,157.
The surge is alarming. It only took less than one month for Africa to record an increase of 1 million new cases since Dec. 15, before which it took more than three months to record an additional 1 million new cases on the continent.
Worries over new variants
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chairperson of the South African Medical Association, said the highly contagious Omicron, which is more prone to mutation compared to previous variants, should be the one contributing to the rapidly increasing cases.
“The region has low vaccination rates compared to the U.S. or the EU and the issue is concerning. We know that with unvaccinated people, immunocompromised people, and people with underlying conditions, the virus is likely to mutate and result in more variants,” she said.
Dr. Phionah Atuhebwe, World Health Organization Immunization and Vaccines Development Programme Coordinator for Africa, said the virus knows no borders.
“If just one country lags behind in immunizing, the virus is given space to mutate into more dangerous variants … this is why high-income countries must step up and help lower-income countries acquire the right resources to vaccinate, no matter what the financial cost,” she said.
Cavince Adhere, a Kenyan international relations scholar, said prolonged bouts of the COVID-19 disease in Africa will only fuel new waves.
“To shield their populations from the virus, African countries will be forced to resort to social restrictions through lockdowns. This is only going to cause more economic pain to the already vulnerable continent,” he said.
In general, Africa remains the least vaccinated region in the world with only 9.6 percent of its population fully vaccinated by early December. This is compared to the WHO’s 40 percent vaccination rate target for the end of 2021.
In contrast, the vaccination rate in developed economies has been far above 60 percent.
With the huge vaccination gap, the term “vaccine apartheid” describes the divide between the world’s richest and the least developed countries, especially African countries, in vaccine access.
“It is regrettable that some of the vaccines donated to the continent could not be administered before the expiry date. Most donations appear to be second thought political decisions by developed countries which have seen vaccines nearing expiry shipped to the continent,” Adhere said.
According to WHO statistics, only six out of Africa’s more than 50 countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Rwanda, Botswana, Seychelles, and Mauritius, have hit the 2021 year-end target of fully vaccinating 40 percent of their populations.
At the current pace, the WHO estimates that it will take until May 2022 before Africa reaches 40 percent coverage and August 2024 before it reaches 70 percent vaccination.
According to the WHO, the continent faces a shortfall of 1.3 billion U.S. dollars for operational costs, including cold-chain logistics and travel costs and payment for vaccinators and supervisors, as well as a looming shortage of syringes and other crucial commodities.
“We’re at a pivotal moment in this pandemic where complacency is the enemy,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. “With supplies starting to increase, we now must intensify our focus on other barriers to vaccination.”
Key lessons in COVID-19 fight
Dr. Coetzee said we must learn to live with the virus. “We need to follow all the non-pharmaceutical interventions and not be fed up and ensure access to the vaccines is equitable in order to fight the pandemic.”
According to Adhere, vaccine nationalism and politicizing the virus have no role in helping the world climb out of its pandemic hole.
“Politics only brought division, nationalism only erected walls against other countries, yet viruses do not need passports to move across borders,” he said, stressing that international cooperation is key to overcoming the pandemic.
He noted China has shown a great deal of concern towards Africa and its pandemic battle.
“Right from the onset, China was forthcoming with information and epidemic control experience that was lacking in Africa … China’s donations were key in giving Africa a strong basis to embrace the fight against the virus,” Adhere said.
During the 8th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in Senegal in November 2021, China promised to send another 1 billion vaccine doses to the continent.
This pledge was translated to reality during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Kenya where he announced on Jan. 6 that China will donate another 10 million vaccine doses to help the East African nation deal with the virus.
“These examples indicate the strong willingness of China to partner with Africa in confronting the pandemic. It sets a good example of what international pandemic cooperation should look like,” he said.