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South Africa, Zimbabwe race to contain COVID-19

Cai Nebe | Privilege Musvanhiri | Adrian Kriesch
April 5, 2021

South Africa's COVID-19 infection rates have remained low in the run-up to Easter, but fears of a third wave are mounting. Meanwhile, Africa's top health official has sounded alarm bells over a new Tanzanian variant.

A nurse takes notes in a South African hospital
In December, hospitals in South Africa were buckling under the caseload of COVID-19 patients, but infections have dropped offImage: RODGER BOSCH/AFP

As summer winds down in Cape Town, South Africans take advantage of the empty beaches on the white sands at Camps Bay. "I'm glad to be free again, to visit the beach and have fun," says one lady.

"We have been deprived. Even in the heart of summer in December, we had a sudden lockdown. We couldn't come to the beach, enjoy the sea, the fresh air. But this is life. We are very happy our life is coming back to normal; the economy is being opened," a man in a wide-brimmed hat says.

While many ignore the instruction to wear masks, social distancing in this public space is hardly difficult. Camps Bay is normally a tourist hotspot, but few foreigners arrived this year because dozens of countries banned non-essential travel to and from South Africa to stop spreading the so-called 'South African variant.' The mutation of the virus, known as B.1.351, is said to be highly contagious. Its discovery led to the South African government stopping its planned rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccinebecause scientists there said it was not effective against the new strain. Instead, South Africa opted for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

A nurse takes notes in a South African hospital
In December, hospitals in South Africa were buckling under the caseload of COVID-19 patients, but infections have dropped offImage: RODGER BOSCH/AFP

A glimmer of hope for South Africa?

However, after February, South Africa's infection rate dropped rapidly and remained relatively low with hardly any lockdown restrictions.

Shabi Mahdi, professor of Vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand, suggests South Africa's 'second wave,' which came in December, was partly driven by the spread of the new B.1.351 variant. The country's inability to enforce coronavirus restrictions might as well added to the high number of infections.

Bracing for the third wave

"In Europe, tighter restrictions were imposed when the case numbers rose. In South Africa, we did the opposite. We started with very high levels of restriction, and when we weren't able to sustain those, we became more lenient and loosened them," Mahdi told DW. 

Indeed, in South Africa's Western Cape province, where Cape Town is the main city, antibody studies show almost 50% of Cape Town's population has already been infected with COVID-19. In some crowded residential areas, the figures are even higher. Meanwhile, the excess death rate suggests that nearly 150,000 people in South Africa have died of COVID-19. The official death count is just under 53,000.

University of Stellenbosch virologist Wolfgang Preiser says so far there is no evidence that the new variant has caused a higher mortality rate. He also adds that there is a reason for hope. "Districts within Cape Town that were badly affected during the first wave seem to be less badly affected during the second wave," Preiser told DW.

"This is evidence of some protective effect against the new variant if you have been infected with the original variant. We think if you had the new virus, you would be immune against all other preceding ones. That is the good news."

Profile picture of virologist Wolfgang Preiser
Virologist Wolfgang Preiser of Stellenbosch University sees reasons for hope in South Africa's battle against COVID-19Image: DW/A. Kriesch

Nevertheless, Wolfgang Preiser and his team are already preparing for the third wave by increasing testing capacities. Since many people continue to ignore the coronavirus regulations, experts expect infection rates to rise again after the Easter holiday.

Tanzania's new variant

Meanwhile, concern is rising over a new coronavirus variant found in a person traveling from Tanzania to Angola. The African Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said the variant had about 40 mutations. The head of the CDC, John Nkengasong, described it as "certainly a variant of concern." Nkengasong added that it is difficult to know whether current vaccines would be effective against the mutation.

"We don't yet know if you bring it in contact with neutralizing antibodies if that actually translates into activities in knocking it out," he said.

Yet, tracking the variant may prove challenging because Tanzania does not reveal data about coronavirus figures in the country and has not done so since May 2020. Under the leadership of late President John Magufuli, Tanzania resisted pressure to combat the coronavirus or introduce safety regulations.

A man carries ex-Tanzania leader John Magufuli's portrait.
Tanzania's recently deceased leader John Magufuli put the brakes on COVID-19 reporting in TanzaniaImage: Luke Dray/Getty Images

Zimbabwe leader hints at threats to those avoiding vaccines

Zimbabwe received its third batch of COVID-19 vaccines on Monday bringing total doses delivered to over 1,635,000. While the country still lacks enough vaccines for its 15 million people, health experts are worried about vaccines' slow uptake. Zimbabwe aims to vaccinate about 10 million by the end of 2021.

Over 123,000 people have been given their first vaccine dose since the inoculation program began in mid-February according to the Zimbabwean government, but over half a million doses remain unused. 

Front on picture of Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa .
President Mnangagwa has bullishly encouraged Zimbabweans to take the COVID-19 vaccinesImage: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

Although Zimbabwe's vaccination program is being carried out voluntarily, President Emerson Mnangagwa issued a thinly-veiled threat. "We will not force you to vaccinate, but there shall come a time where, if you are not vaccinated, you will not be employed. If you are not vaccinated, you will not use government public buses, so it is up to you to decide what you will do."

President Mnangagwa has also hinted at adopting a mandatory policy to expedite a 60% herd immunity target by December 2021.