NAIROBI, Kenya – In the past three weeks alone, the percentage of Kenyans testing positive for 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 aides, some of them vaccinated, tested positive this week after attending a sports tournament in neighboring Tanzania.
And in Zimbabwe, soaring infections have prompted the government to institute new restrictions on businesses and incoming travellers.
Across Africa, countries are reporting an increase in Covid cases, and health officials are worried about how the new Omicron variant will affect the world’s least vaccinated continent. Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa, remains highly infectious, but so far has caused 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 robust holiday season – only for governments to reintroduce curfews and quarantines and impose new vaccination mandates.
Even as Britain and the United States lifted travel restrictions linked to Omicron in southern African states last week, Africans have faced new travel restrictions from elsewhere due the increase in infections. From Saturday, the United Arab Emirates is suspend entry for travelers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania, and impose additional requirements for those traveling from Ghana and Uganda.
“We will unfortunately be celebrating the holiday season amidst the fourth wave sweeping across the continent,” said Dr. John N. Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. , said Thursday at a press conference.
According to the Africa CDC, at least 21 African countries are currently experiencing a fourth wave of the pandemic. Three countries – Algeria, Kenya and Mauritius – suffer a fifth.
Cases have more than doubled in recent weeks in countries including Botswana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Positivity rates have also soared: Malawi reported a positivity rate of 46.29% on Thursday, compared to just 1.54% on November 30. Infections are rising among young people in Uganda, with some epidemiologists attributing this to younger age groups being most active during the festive season.
Omicron crosses Africa, with 22 countries now reporting the variant. It is unclear whether the highly contagious variant is the dominant variant or the one driving the spike in infections across Africa. But health experts say even in countries where genomic sequencing is not readily available, the sudden spike 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.
Early data from South Africa last week suggests the country’s Omicron wave may have peaked, with authorities ending tracing efforts and lifting isolation for people possibly exposed but not showing 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 the data from South Africa may not be valid for other countries because the population there is relatively young and the vaccination rate is high compared to many other African countries.
“Let us be careful not to extrapolate what we see in South Africa across the continent or across the world,” he said.
In hospitals in many African cities, doctors are reporting more infections.
Tinashe Gede, an immunologist who works at the government-run Parirenyatwa General Hospital in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, said he had seen an increase in admissions, but without the need for ventilators and life support devices. A significant number of new cases he has treated have been breakthrough infections, he said, but the symptoms have not been severe.
Health workers are also falling ill.
At least 436 health workers tested positive last week at Dr Gede Hospital, according to Linos Dhire, spokesperson for the hospital.
Dr Nelly Bosire, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Nairobi, said she had to call 10 paediatricians to find one to attend to a newborn baby recently. Eight of them, she said, were coughing, in isolation or had confirmed Covid diagnoses. The virus, she said, was spreading like “wildfire”.
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Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, said she was still “cautiously optimistic” that serious illnesses and deaths will remain low in the fourth wave.
But the slow rollout of vaccines could hamper those prospects, she added, given that only six African countries have reached the WHO’s target of fully vaccinating 40% of their populations.
Even as vaccine supplies arrive, many African countries continue to struggle to get them into the arms of the people. It is difficult to deliver vaccines to rural areas and to find enough temperature-controlled storage. Vaccine skepticism also plays a role; Dr Nkengasong said around 20% of Africans were still hesitant to get vaccinated.
Some donated vaccines do not have a long shelf life, prompting authorities in countries like Nigeria to destroy them.
In Kenya, vaccine rollouts are being hampered because health officials have not launched nationwide campaigns to convince their people of the benefits of Covid vaccines, said Anand Madhvani, the Kenya Covid Network coordinator.
For now, governments are rushing to institute a slew of rules to curb the new wave of infections. Rwanda reimposed a night curfew and suspended concerts. Several nations, including Botswana, Ghana and Malawi, have introduced vaccination mandates targeting local populations or incoming travellers.
On Wednesday, Kenya’s health ministry said it would ban unvaccinated people from public spaces, even though a court recently suspended the vaccination mandate. On Friday, some 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 upsetting the vacation plans of those like Denis Munjanja, a businessman in Harare who fell ill with Covid last year. Mr Munjanja said he was afraid of contracting the virus again, and he and his family decided to stay indoors over the festive period instead of mingling with loved ones.
Nearly two years into a pandemic, he said, it wasn’t the celebratory mood 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 reporting from Johannesburg.