Towards the end of November 2021, authorities in South Africa announced that scientists in the country had detected a new COVID-19 variant. At a news conference, Tulio de Oliveira
, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, stated that the variant was “a reason for concern” and was “unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections”.
Almost six weeks post this, the variant, christened ‘Omicron’, has spread, with the World Health Organisation announcing
that prior to the holiday season, it had been identified in 128 countries. Responses to this new variant have differed among countries on the African continent; however, there has been a joint effort on the parts of African governments alongside the Africa Centre for Disease Control to scale up surveillance and the roll out of the vaccine.
The Africa Centre for Disease Control Director, John Nkengasong, stated that an estimated 10 percent of the continent was fully vaccinated. With supplies of vaccines finally becoming more accessible, there has been a concentrated effort on the part of some African governments to encourage people to get vaccinated, and in some cases, this has been intensified.
Vaccine hoarding on the parts of many western countries saw African countries pushed out in terms of access to supply. The World Health Organisation says, as of 24 December 2021, “just 3 percent of the almost 8 billion doses given globally have been administered in Africa, and only around 8 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated, compared with more than 60 percent in many high-income countries.”
Meanwhile on the 6 January 2021, the Africa Centre for Disease Control Director, John Nkengasong, stated that an estimated 10 percent of the continent
was fully vaccinated. With supplies of vaccines finally becoming more accessible, there has been a concentrated effort on the part of some African governments to encourage people to get vaccinated, and in some cases, this has been intensified.
Days prior to the announcement by South Africa regarding the detection of Omicron, the Government of Kenya announced that, from 21 December 2022, people would be required to show proof of vaccination if they wanted to access in person government services; enter restaurants, bars and hotels; use public transport and even visit attractions such as game parks. Weeks later following the identification of Omicron combined with the holiday season, which saw a surge in cases in the country, the government not only said they would go through with this mandate despite a court order suspending it, but it also added that proof of vaccination would also be required to enter all public spaces such as supermarkets and even organised events such as weddings, workshops and funerals. While the percentage of fully vaccinated adults stood at 15.9 percent
on the 5 January 2022, the government has also announced the rollout of boosters
In neighbouring Uganda, President Museveni addressed the nation on the 31 December 2021 and announced the easing of COVID-19 measures, some of which have been in place since the pandemic began. Mr Museveni said schools (which have been shut since March 2020) would re-open from January 10th
; and then two weeks after this, performing arts, bars, sports and sports events would also be allowed to resume. Also being lifted are measures such as the 7pm-5am curfew. While the reopening of things may be seen as a surprise strategy considering the spread of Omicron, Mr Museveni did warn that these decisions would be reversed should hospitals fill up. Furthermore, he urged people to get vaccinated, and days later announced that he had just had his booster shot and that these were available for those aged over 50 and individuals considered to be vulnerable.
Since its scientists identified the Omicron variant, South Africa has been in the headlines. Western countries such as the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) were quick to impose an unfair and unreasonable travel ban on the country, which would no doubt have affected its tourism sector. In the first week of December, South Africa’s Minister for Health, Joe Phaala, stated that the country was experiencing its fourth wave and that while the number of new cases on 25th
November 2021 stood at 2465, a week later, on the same day it was 11,535.
While the reopening of things may be seen as a surprise strategy considering the spread of Omicron, Mr Museveni did warn that these decisions would be reversed should hospitals fill up.
By the 16th
of December, cases had continued to go up, however, authorities reported what Bloomberg
described as “a much lower rate of hospital admission”, which suggests that Omicron is milder. In the same article Bloomberg
quoted scientists as warning that ‘other nations may have a different experience to South Africa as the country’s population is young compared with developed nations. Between 70% and 80% of citizens may also have had a prior COVID-19 infection, according to antibody surveys, meaning they could have some level of protection’.
While case numbers remained high, the government refrained from imposing stricter lockdown measures, remaining at ‘adjusted level 1’ in its tier system of restrictions. Instead, authorities continued to encourage people to get vaccinated. The government had already extended vaccines to those aged 12–17 in October 2021, making it among the first few countries to roll out a programme for teenagers, and then announced that boosters would be available from the 24 December 2021.
On the 30 December 2021, a statement from the Government announced that “All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level”, with data showing a 29.7 percent decrease in cases in the week ending 25th
December 2021. Based on this, the government announced lifting of the midnight-4am curfew, but emphasised upon the need to observe other COVID-19 measures such as mandatory mask wearing.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Zimbabwe, a week after the detection of the Omicron variant in South Africa, the Zimbabwean Government announced the imposing of a 9pm-6am curfew, restaurants to close at 7pm and that nightclubs and bars would only admit vaccinated customers.
The government announced lifting of the midnight-4am curfew, but emphasised upon the need to observe other COVID-19 measures such as mandatory mask wearing.
On the 31st
of December, the country’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, said that due to the country being “in the grip of a Omicron variant induced fourth wave”, the level 2 lockdown would be extended by 14 days and that the reopening of school would also be delayed, and he once again urged people to get vaccinated.
While no vaccine mandate has been imposed in Zimbabwe, in September 2021, the Government of Zimbabwe issued a notice stating that all civil servants must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or face disciplinary action; a month later, they announced that unvaccinated civil servants would not be allowed to come to work and, thus, will not receive salaries.
The way forward
South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya are just four out of 54 countries on the African continent to have imposed a range of different COVID-19 measures since the pandemic began. One common theme among these is the focus upon promoting and pushing for people to get vaccinated, particularly since the detection of the Omicron variant. It is clear to see that the decisions being made are also largely focused upon the economy, thus, countries like South Africa and Uganda choosing to ease restrictions.
The experience of South Africa in particular is leading to questions regarding the effectiveness of lockdowns, particularly as on 6 January 2021, Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong said
in his weekly COVID-19 briefing that, “The period where we are using severe lockdowns as a tool is over. We should actually be looking at how we use public health and social measures more carefully and in a balanced way as the vaccination increases."
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