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The Downs And Ups Of Africa's Current COVID Surge

Residents wait to register at a mass vaccination site in Johannesburg on July 8.
Waldo Swiegers
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Residents wait to register at a mass vaccination site in Johannesburg on July 8.

When it comes to COVID-19 in Africa, there were mixed signals from Africa on Thursday.

The World Health Organization reports that after eight consecutive weeks of surging cases across the continent, there's finally been a reversal. The total number of confirmed new cases in Africa fell by 1.7% to nearly 282,000 in the past week. And it's worth noting that this represents only 8% of new cases worldwide.

But as with so much in this pandemic, that good news comes with a large dose of caution. At a press conference Thursday, WHO's regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, noted that the slackening pace of infections is almost entirely the result of a sharp drop in cases in just one country: South Africa — which accounts for about a third of Africa's reported new cases with more than 104,000 per week.

Once you take South Africa out of the equation it's clear that in much of the rest of the continent, cases are still rising steeply, said Moeti. "Twenty-one countries are experiencing a resurgence."

Nations at the top of this list include Algeria with about 2,500 daily new cases, Mozambique with 1,700 and Rwanda with more than 900.

Meanwhile, said Moeti, "the gains in South Africa are also uncertain." Over the past week the country was riven by violent political protests. "These have disrupted key [COVID] response activities, such as surveillance and testing," said Moeti. "There are also real concerns that the mass gatherings could trigger another rise in cases in South Africa."

Adding to the concern is evidence that Africa's current wave has largely been driven by the Delta variant first identified in India. According to WHO, the Delta variant has now been found in 26 African countries. Delta is about two times as transmissible as the original strain of COVID, and that proved devastating in India — contributing to an unprecedented strain on hospitals as well as widespread death.

As with Africa's confirmed COVID case count, so far the number of deaths on the continent — currently about 840 per day — remains low compared to harder hit regions of the world. And this may in part be a reflection of the relative youth of Africa's population.

Still health officials of several African countries point to signs that hospitals are already starting to buckle. At a news conference organized by WHO last week, Dr. Ismael Katjitae of Namibia's Ministry of Health and Social Services noted that about half of Namibia's 500 hospitalized patients are currently concentrated at a small group of hospitals in the capital city of Windhoek.

"The capital," explains Katjitae, "has the highest level of critical care expertise and serves as the main referral for most regions in the country. This has resulted in very high bed occupancy rates beyond the capacity of the health-care systems to cope."

"There's been an associated spike in the deaths [from COVID], with approximately 1,000 deaths in the last month," adds Katjitae.

Similarly on Thursday Moeti noted that a recent analysisby the nonprofit group PATH found that 13 countries in Africa now need more medical oxygen due to a surge in cases, exacerbating oxygen shortages that have plagued many countries long before the pandemic.

On a more encouraging note, said Moeti, she expects Africa to receive about 60 million doses of COVID vaccines in the coming weeks. Still, at present Africa remains woefully unprotected — with fewer than 2% of the more than billion people on the continent fully vaccinated.

In short, said Moeti, "Let us be under no illusions." Africa's current COVID wave "is absolutely not over."

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