Africa suffers worst surge in Covid cases as delta variant spurs third wave of pandemic

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Tunisian municipality employees seen carrying a casket of a COVID-19 victim at the regional hospital during the coronavirus infections.
Jdidi Wassim | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

Africa, where less than 2% of the population is vaccinated against Covid-19, experienced its worst surge of cases last week since the pandemic began, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

The second-largest continent recorded more than 251,000 new Covid cases during the week ending on July 4, a 20% increase from the prior week and a 12% increase from the January peak. Active cases in Africa recently surpassed 642,000, eclipsing a second-wave peak of 528,000 active cases in January, according to a BBC analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

“Africa has just marked the continent’s most dire pandemic week ever. But the worst is yet to come as the fast-moving third wave continues to gain speed and new ground,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa. ”The end to this precipitous rise is still weeks away. Cases are doubling now every 18 days, compared with every 21 days only a week ago.”

A security man measures a man’s temperature at the entrance of a market in Kampala, Uganda, on June 20, 2021.
Nicholas Kajoba | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

More than sixteen African countries, including Malawi and Senegal, are seeing new cases rise. The more transmissible delta variant has been detected in at least ten of those countries.

Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Zambia, Rwanda and Tunisia are also experiencing some of the worst upticks in infections, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Hospitalizations have increased by more than 40% across the continent in recent weeks.

“Alarm bells should be going off,” says Dr. Tom Kenyon, chief health officer at Project HOPE and former director of the Center for Global Health at the U.S. CDC. He said Africa’s rate of new cases will soon surpass Asia. “Given the horrors we just saw in India, that should be cause for alarm and stimulate action.”

He said the Covid emergency in Africa “may become worse than anywhere else we’ve seen.”  

South Africa is currently grappling with a devastating third wave of infections after the delta variant forced the country back into lockdown on June 28. A 9 p.m. curfew, local time, is currently in place in the country while less than 1% of its residents are vaccinated against Covid. Across the continent, less than 2% of all people have been inoculated due to a slow international vaccine rollout that has left poorer nations waiting for the life-saving shots. The 50 million doses administered to date in Africa make up just 1.6% of doses administered globally.

A resident receives a dose of the AstraZeneca Plc Covid-19 vaccine at Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, July 6, 2021.
Patrick Meinhardt | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“Vaccine nationalism where a handful of nations have taken the lion’s share is morally indefensible and an ineffective public health strategy,” WHO Director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing Wednesday. Ghebreyesus also blamed the lack of vaccine equity for a “wave of death” in parts of the world, including Africa.

Vaccine deliveries through Covax, a global initiative designed to ensure equitable access to Covid vaccines, are finally picking up after months of delay. More than 1.6 million doses have been delivered to Africa through the initiative and more than 20 million doses of Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines are expected to be delivered to the continent soon. Norway and Sweden will also donate large amounts of vaccines to Africa.

“Some vaccine deliveries are expected in August, but nowhere near what is needed,” said Kenyon, who also served as CDC’s country director in Botswana, Namibia, and Ethiopia. ”To be successful, a vaccine supply must be paired with a trained workforce and delivery systems.”

In total, 66 million doses have been delivered to Africa, with 40 million doses acquired through bilateral deals, 25 million supplied via COVAX and 800,000 doses supplied by the African Union African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team.

“With much larger COVID-19 vaccine deliveries expected to arrive in July and August, African countries must use this time to prepare to rapidly expand the roll-out,” said Moeti. The U.S., by comparison, has administered roughly 332 million shots to 55% of its population, according to U.S. CDC data.

Roofing Rolling Mills workers load oxygen tanks on a vehicle to be distributed to various hospitals in Uganda, free of charge, at their factory in Namanve, Wakiso, Uganda, on June 29, 2021.
Badru Katumba | AFP | Getty Images

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