South African authorities appeared ready to impose new restrictions on Sunday in a belated attempt to stop a surge in Covid-19 that is devastating the economic heart of the country.
The wave of infections has been driven by the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant, weak countermeasures, and public fatigue with existing restrictions.
South Africa’s growing cases are part of a resurgence in Africa with a peak that is expected to exceed that of previous waves, as the 54 countries of the continent struggle to vaccinate even a small percentage of their population.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly called for vaccines for Africa, saying a third wave of “rapidly rising” Covid is outstripping efforts to protect populations, “leaving them increasingly dangerously exposed.”
“The third wave is picking up speed, spreading faster, hitting harder. This is very worrying. With a rapidly increasing number of cases and a rise in reports of serious illness, the latest increase threatens to be the worst in Africa yet, ”said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa last week.
African countries have registered 5.4 million cases and almost 145,000 deaths, although the unreliable data means that the true numbers are believed to be much higher.
In the South African province of Gauteng, the most populous part of the country, Covid patients wait hours, even days, on stretchers in emergency rooms before finding a bed, hospital officials told The Guardian.
Unlike waves in the past, this time the hospital system is failing, said Dr. Angelique Coetzee, president of the South African Medical Association.
Repeated promises have been made to accelerate the faltering vaccination campaign in South Africa, but only 2.5 million have been delivered to a population of 60 million. Although the increase in cases in Gauteng has overcome a severe second wave six months ago, it has not yet peaked, experts believe.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to announce new restrictions on public gatherings and the sale of alcohol when he addresses the nation on Sunday night.
The increase in infections during the southern hemisphere winter was widely predicted, prompting angry criticism from provincial and national officials. In South Africa, outrage has been fueled by a series of corruption scandals. The Health Minister has been suspended pending an investigation into the corruption allegations.
The official death toll from Covid in South Africa is 60,000, although excess mortality statistics suggest that close to 170,000 may have died from the disease since May last year.
There has also been widespread criticism of the authorities for not hiring enough additional staff, reopening a major hospital in Gauteng closed after a fire two months ago, or following the advice of health officials to impose stricter restrictions on movement or behavior. Health professionals have described the much-publicized arrival of military doctors as “a very late fall into a very large ocean.”
Lucky Mpeko, director of ambulance services for QRS, said Gauteng hospitals were so full that many patients were sent to medical facilities hours away in Mpumalanga and the northwestern provinces.
“The usual practice is that a patient must be transferred to the hospital closest to his home, but that has not been possible because the hospitals are full, they do not have beds,” said Mpeko.
“Even when you are allowed to take a patient to a hospital, you will have to queue for two or three hours while they try to find space for their patient.”
Cases on the mainland have increased rapidly since the beginning of May. Kenya, Namibia, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been severely affected and health systems are on the verge of being overwhelmed.
The Zambian Ministry of Health has reported an “unprecedented” number of deaths from Covid, increasing pressure on morgues and an already weak health system.
With similar trends in Uganda, Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng blamed highly infectious variants of the new spread, which she said was different from the second wave with large numbers of hospitalized youth.
Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the continent was not winning the battle against the virus.
“The third wave has arrived with the severity for which most countries were not prepared. So the third wave is extremely brutal, “he said. saying during a weekly online briefing.
The slow progress of vaccination has been attributed to limited availability of vaccines after Western countries bought them all, poor decision-making, and multiple administrative failures.
Just over one in 100 people in Africa has been vaccinated, and of the 2.7 billion doses administered worldwide, just under 1.5% have been administered on the continent.
Eight African countries have used up all the stocks provided to them by Covax, the UN-backed vaccine exchange facility, and another 18 are about to run out of stocks, the WHO told reporters last week. Dozens more have less than half left.
Malawi has sold out in recent days, just as thousands owed their second chance.
“The lack of vaccines in a region with high levels of poverty and inequality means that many people feel that they are waiting to die,” said Deprose Muchena, Regional Director of Amnesty International.
However, several countries have not given Covax injections before their expiration date due to logistical failures and doubts about vaccines.
Malawi destroyed nearly 20,000 expired doses of AstraZeneca in May, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan have returned more than 2 million shots to the UN to avoid a similar scenario.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism