NAIROBI, Kenya – In the past three weeks alone, the percentage of Kenyans testing positive for the coronavirus has risen from less than 1% to over 30% – the highest positivity rate in the country to date.
In Uganda, nearly 50 lawmakers and their staff, some of whom have been vaccinated, tested positive this week after attending a sports tournament in neighboring Tanzania.
And in Zimbabwe, soaring infections have prompted the government to place new restrictions on inbound businesses and travelers.
Across Africa, countries are reporting an increase in Covid cases, and health officials are concerned about how the new Omicron variant will affect the world’s least vaccinated continent. Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa, remains highly contagious, but so far it causes fewer deaths and hospitalizations than previous variants such as Delta.
The latest wave comes as many African countries began to reopen and businesses hoped for a strong holiday season – only for governments to reintroduce curfews and quarantines and impose new vaccine mandates.
Even though Britain and the United States lifted Omicron-related travel restrictions in southern African states last week, Africans have faced new travel restrictions from elsewhere due to increased infections. As of Saturday, the United Arab Emirates suspend entry for travelers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania, and impose additional requirements for those traveling from Ghana and Uganda.
âWe will unfortunately be celebrating the holiday season in the midst of the fourth wave sweeping the continent,â said Dr John N. Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. , said Thursday at a press conference.
At least 21 African countries are currently experiencing a fourth wave of the pandemic, according to the Africa CDC. Three countries – Algeria, Kenya and Mauritius – suffer a fifth.
Cases have more than doubled in recent weeks in countries like Botswana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Positivity rates have also skyrocketed: Malawi reported a positivity rate of 46.29% on Thursday, down from just 1.54% on November 30. Infections are increasing among young people in Uganda, with some epidemiologists attributing this to the younger age groups. during the holiday season.
Omicron is crossing Africa, with 22 countries now reporting the variant. It is not known whether the highly contagious variant is the dominant variant or the one causing the outbreaks of infections across Africa. But health experts say even in countries where genomic sequencing is not readily available, the sudden increase in cases could indicate the spread of the Omicron variant.
And experts say overall Covid infections in Africa are likely higher given the lack of widespread testing in many countries.
The first data from South Africa last week suggested the country’s Omicron wave may have peaked, with authorities halting research efforts and removing isolation from people who may have been exposed but did not present. no symptoms. Another study showed that people diagnosed with Omicron in South Africa were less likely to be hospitalized than those with previous variants like Delta.
But Dr Nkengasong warned that South Africa’s data may not be valid for other countries, as the population there is relatively young and the vaccination rate is high compared to many other African countries.
âLet’s be careful not to extrapolate what we see in South Africa across the continent or across the world,â he said.
In hospitals in many African cities, doctors are reporting more infections.
Tinashe Gede, an immunologist who works at Parirenyatwa Public General Hospital in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, said he has seen an increase in admissions, but without the need for ventilators and life-support devices. A significant number of the new cases he has treated have been breakthrough infections, he said, but the symptoms have not been severe.
Health workers are also getting sick.
At least 436 health workers tested positive last week at Dr Gede’s hospital, according to Linos Dhire, a spokesperson for the hospital.
Dr Nelly Bosire, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Nairobi, said she had to call 10 pediatricians to find one to care for a newborn baby one recent night. Eight of them, she said, were coughing, isolated or had a confirmed diagnosis of Covid. The virus, she said, was spreading like “wildfire”.
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Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa, said she was still “cautiously optimistic” that serious illnesses and deaths will remain low in wave four.
But the slow deployment of vaccines could hamper those prospects, she added, given that only six African countries have reached the WHO target of fully immunizing 40% of their population.
Even as vaccine supplies arrive, many African countries continue to face challenges getting them into people’s arms. It is difficult to deliver vaccines to rural areas and find sufficient temperature-controlled storage. Skepticism about vaccines also plays a role; Dr Nkengasong said about 20 percent of Africans are still hesitant to get the vaccine.
Some donated vaccines do not have a long shelf life, prompting authorities in countries like Nigeria to destroy them.
In Kenya, vaccine deployment is hampered because health officials have failed to launch nationwide campaigns to convince their people of the benefits of Covid vaccines, said Anand Madhvani, the Covid Kenya Network coordinator.
For now, governments are rushing to institute a multitude of rules to curb the new wave of infections. Rwanda reimposed a nighttime curfew and suspended concerts. Several nations, including Botswana, Ghana and Malawi, have introduced vaccination mandates targeting local populations or incoming travelers.
Kenya’s health ministry said on Wednesday it would ban unvaccinated people from public spaces, even though a court recently suspended the vaccine’s mandate. On Friday, some shopping malls in the capital, Nairobi, had started asking shoppers and employees to show proof of vaccination.
The surge in cases and the resulting restrictions are shaking vacation plans for people like Denis Munjanja, a Harare businessman who fell ill with Covid last year. Mr Munjanja said he was afraid of contracting the virus again and that he and his family decided to stay indoors during the holiday season instead of mingling with loved ones.
Almost two years after the start of a pandemic, he said, it was not the party atmosphere he had hoped for. But he said, “We just have to be very careful.”
Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi and Jeffrey Moyo from Harare, Zimbabwe. Lynsey chutel contributed to Johannesburg reporting.