South Africa: COVID is back with a vengeance | Africa | DW | 29.12.2020

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South Africa: COVID is back with a vengeance

As South Africa becomes the first African nation to surpass the 1 million mark for coronavirus cases, authorities worry about the spread of the new and potentially highly contagious variant detected in the country.

A woman in Soweto submits to a coronavirus test

South Africa is seeing a new surge in coronavirus infections

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced stricter restrictions on Monday evening, including for public gatherings, that are aimed at curbing a new surge in coronavirus infections. A renewed ban on the sale of alcohol was also put in place. The curfew now applies from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Ramaphosa himself is currently self-quarantined after coming into contact with a person with COVID-19 last week.

The country, which is in caught in a second wave of infections, has recorded more than 1 million coronavirus cases and over 27,000 COVID-related deaths since March, health authorities said Sunday. "We have let down our guard, and unfortunately we are now paying the price," Ramaphosa said in a televised speech to the nation the following day.

Compounding the anxiety, a new variant of the virus that is thought to be more highly transmissible is spreading in South Africa. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said the variant in South Africa was being transmitted rapidly and is likely responsible for most of the second wave of the pandemic there.

Passengers stranded at airports

The mutated variety has led many countries to put restrictions in place for travelers from South Africa. This has resulted in chaos in the aviation industry, with many passengers stranded at airports.

Tracy-lee De Wet came to South Africa to help her mother bury her partner. Her flight out to Ireland, where she lives, was canceled. "There is a lot of fear. Will I get home? When will I get home? What is going to happen with my job?" De Wet said, telling DW that the situation was stressful and exhausting.

Pasenegers wearing protective masks walk through Capetown International Airport

Travel restrictions on South Africa have left passengers stranded at airports

Tshuzde Brancks Minga, who lives in Dallas in the United States, has been stranded at the airport in Johannesburg for two days now. "I don't have money. I don't have anything. I just wanna go back home to my wife and kids," he said.

The Eastern Cape Province around Port Elizabeth and the Western Cape Province around Cape Town have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Health infrastructure there is at the limits of its capacity. According to President Ramaphosa, the first vaccines are not expected to arrive in South Africa until next year. Meanwhile, the restrictions are having a devastating effect on the economy.

New SARS-CoV-2 variant in Nigeria

In Nigeria, where a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 was also discovered last week, researchers are cautiously optimistic that it is a home-grown mutation. This means that it is not necessarily more contagious, as is the case with the mutations found in the United Kingdom and now in South Africa.

The new variant was uncovered last week by scientists at the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) in southeastern Nigeria. ACEGID director Christian Happi stressed that scientists were racing to unlock knowledge about the Nigeria variant and urged people not to "extrapolate." More research was necessary to establish the scope of the new threat, he said.

Cyril Ramaphosa wearing a mask

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has self-quarantined after contact with an infected person.

Africa not as hard -hit as rest of world

Nigeria has recorded 82,000 COVID-19 cases, with 1,246 deaths. The number is considered very modest in view of the country's population of some 200 million people. But since the start of the month, cases have been rising by several hundred a day. Major increases were detected in Lagos, the economic capital, prompting authorities to reinstate a curfew and restrict gatherings to no more than 50 people.

Africa has recorded a total of about 2.4 million cases, just 3.6% of the global tally, although testing is also far less widespread. The continent's death toll of 57,000 is less than a fifth of that of the United States.

However, Africa CDC head John Nkengasong appealed to Africans not to let down their guard, warning of the danger of a second wave of infection.

Thuso Khumalo contributed to this report