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Coronavirus: Africa faces a second wave

December 23, 2020

The number of new coronavirus cases in Africa is rising sharply, and experts are talking of a second wave. But unlike in Europe, COVID-19 vaccines are still months away.

Nairobi | Unterricht mit Maske in Nairobi
Kenya shut schools for an extended period earlier this yearImage: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS/ D. Odhiambo

The second wave of the pandemic, which has long since reached other parts of the world, is also sweeping across the African continent.

From South Africa to Nigeria, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the number of new coronavirus infections is on the rise in many parts of Africa.

The continent has recorded more than 2.5 million cases since the pandemic began, with some 59,770 deaths.

"The second wave has arrived," said Ado Muhammad, a special health adviser to the Group of Eight developing countries (known as D8), which includes Nigeria.

"I am concerned about that. People are going about their business as usual, going to weddings, events, church and mosque. They shake hands and don't wear masks and there is no social distancing," the public health specialist told DW.

Health authorities in 47 African countries have registered an average of 73,000 new COVID-19 infections per week since the end of November compared to an average of 30,000 new weekly cases in October, according to the World Health Organization.

The number of daily Infections in Rwanda are on the rise — even though bars and nightclubs have been closed since March.

In Kenya, cases started increasing again in October. The government has extended the nationwide curfew until January 3 and schools are largely closed until 2021.

South Africa also appears to have been hit by a second wave, and now accounts for more than a third of the coronavirus cases reported across the African continent.

At its peak in July, South Africa was reporting nearly 14,000 new cases per day. This declined by October to around 1,000 new daily cases. Now, however, the number of new daily infections has soared back up to 9,500.

South Africa's Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize said COVID-19 positivity rate — the proportion of tests that come back positive — had risen to 21%. This is much higher than the "ideal" rate of 10%, he tweeted.

South Africa reports new coronavirus mutation

Wolfgang Preiser, head of the Medical Virology Division at South Africa's Stellenbosch University, is surprised by the timing of the country's second wave because it's summer in the southern hemisphere.

"I had hoped that we would be spared this until the fall, for example in April, when it gets colder," Preiser said in an interview with DW.

South Africa's rapidly increasing coronavirus cases could be driven by a new and more infectious variant of the disease, said Preiser, who was involved in detecting the mutation.

Several countries, including Germany, have suspended air travel from South Africa in the hope of stopping the spread of this variant.

The South African government has also responded by stepping up coronavirus measures, including closing public beaches and restricting alcohol sales.

Africans hit hard by COVID-19 lockdowns

Preiser doesn't believe, however, that South Africa can tolerate another hard national lockdown like that introduced in March.

Nigerian economist Lawan Habib also advises against Africa nations turning to shutdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Africa.

"The fragile nature of the African economy can't contain a second wave of complete lockdown," Habib, a lecturer at Kano State Polytechnic in northern Nigeria, told DW in an interview.

"Going into a lockdown again will do nothing but rather redouble the problem of poverty and unemployment," he said, adding that people are still suffering the impact of the first lockdowns.

Instead, governments should focus on infrastructure to support remote learning and people working from home, he said.

Lessons from the first wave

South Africa, for one, is better set up to fight a second coronavirus wave as it has learned lessons from the first one, virologist Preiser says.

"We have upgraded in terms of oxygen. We are diagnosing diabetics, who didn't even know they had the disease and who are particularly at risk [of severe outcomes from COVID-19]. I hope that newly created structures within the health system will also bring about long-term improvement."

South Africa, like many other African countries, has a proven track record managing disasters and allocating tight resources, he pointed out, adding that triage was routine in many poor countries.

Triage is when patients are prioritized depending on the severity of their condition and their likelihood of recovery without treatment.

Africans still not carrying out enough tests

It's still difficult to know exactly how widespread coronavirus is on the continent, WHO warns because testing levels in Africa are low compared to other world regions.

Ten countries out of 54 — South Africa, Morocco, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana — account for about 70% of the total number of tests conducted in Africa.

To address the shortage, an initiative called PACT (Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing) is currently working to procure 11 million rapid antigen tests for African countries.

A health worker swabs a women's nose to test for coronavirus in Soweto
Image: Jerome Delay/AP Photo/picture alliance

Vaccines still months away

In Africa, hope also rests on newly developed vaccines that have already been approved in several parts of the world, including the United States and the European Union.

Nigeria's Health Minister Osagie Ehanire has said the country expects to receive its first COVID-19 vaccine shipment in January, although he added that it wasn't yet certain which vaccine this would be.

The government had earlier announced Nigeria would receive 20 million vaccine doses.

Kenya has also ordered 24 million vaccine doses through the COVAX initiative, which aims to ensure that all countries worldwide have equal access to coronavirus vaccines.

Coronavirus testing specimens are arranged on a desk
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Karumba

Experts believe it will be months before vaccines are widely available across the continent. John Nkengasong, head of Africa's Centers for Disease Control, said at a recent press conference that mass vaccination will not begin in Africa until mid-2021.

This makes it all the more important to fight the second wave with all available means, warns virologist Wolfgang Preiser.

"Wear a mask, keep your distance, keep your social life outdoors as much as possible," he advised.

But, he said, messages asking people to change their behavior aren't strong enough anymore.

"Maybe now you have to show [the consequences]: 'You had a party here and now grandpa is dead'," he said.

He urged everyone to take responsibility for themselves and their families to lower the curve of infections — a second time.

Getting the vaccine to everyone, everywhere

This article was adapted from German by Kate Hairsine.

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.