As African nations wait for hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses to arrive, health officials are concerned about a general rise in coronavirus cases and deaths, especially in Southern Africa.
The stories, reported in local media and highlighted by aid groups, are chilling. In the tiny kingdom of eSwatini, medical aid group Doctors Without Borders says health facilities are seeing 200 new cases per day and a death rate four times higher than they saw in the first wave.
In the coastal nation of Mozambique, case numbers are nearly seven times higher than they were at the peak of the first wave in 2020.
And in the landlocked nation of Malawi, the poorest country in Southern Africa, new cases are doubling every four to five days, and the nation’s main COVID-19 facility is nearly full.
Dr. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tried to break down the continent’s trajectory as many nations enter a second wave without enough vaccine supplies.
He said one indicator worth noting is that for about a third of the continent’s countries, the death rate has risen above the global average.
“It used to be the reverse,” he told reporters via teleconference on Thursday. “During the first wave, the case fatality rate was about 2.2%, and now we are seeing 2.6%. In terms of the number of countries experiencing the second wave, 41 of them are currently experiencing the second wave on the continent. That is 41 of the 55 member states. Five countries accounted for about 70%.”
Those countries are South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Ethiopia.
Africa escaped the worst of the pandemic last year. But health experts point out the continent now has many factors complicating the situation. Testing has lagged behind the rest of the world. Vaccine rollout has been slower, with just a handful of countries only recently launching vaccination campaigns.
And the continent’s chronic problems with infrastructure and capacity mean that health systems, social safety nets, transportation networks and economies are struggling to meet the challenge posed by this pandemic.
This, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization's (WHO) regional director for Africa, is exactly what African health officials have been talking about when they warned against letting vaccine acquisition play out in the open market, a situation that gives wealthier nations advantages like having more power to negotiate for cheaper vaccines in larger quantities.
Moeti told journalists Thursday she was still optimistic.
“Clearly, global solidarity is still a work in progress,” she said. “It was our ambition. It was our hope. It has not delivered to the extent that we had hoped, but it is still a work in progress. We are still doing our advocacy for donations from countries that have secured more vaccine to cover the entire population.”
Moeti said once African nations secure vaccine doses, they face another challenge: convincing people to take them. She emphasized that the vaccines approved by WHO are safe and effective, and said the organization is being proactive about dispelling the growing tide of false information about vaccines.
“What encourages me is that we know in the African region that in general, people have been positive about having their children vaccinated,” she said. “It is only lately that some of the anti-vaccine sentiments, messaging, initiatives and campaigns have started to land here. We need to build on African people's belief in vaccines for their children to help them to understand that something extraordinary was done to develop these vaccines. And of course, to be very factual about the fact that we are learning about the vaccines as we go along, but we know enough about their efficaciousness.”
Moeti advised people who can take a WHO-approved vaccine to do it. She and other experts reiterated their best advice on containing the coronavirus — stay at home, if possible, wear a mask, wash hands and keep a safe distance.