A few cases of the new Covid-19 variant have been picked up in Africa – but the continent’s fragile health systems will not withstand the kind of onslaught being experienced in India, warns Africa CDC director.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Africa has to prevent an Indian-scaled Covid-19 tsunami hitting its shores – because curing it after it arrives is not an option, Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has warned.
The first few infections of the deadly B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus have already been picked up in Africa, exacerbating fears of the spread of the Covid-19 strain that is devastating India.
Five cases of the variant have been isolated in Kenya, one in Uganda and an unknown number of suspected cases in Morocco, according to Nkengasong.
He told an online media conference on 6 May that the Africa CDC was still examining the cases as it tried to isolate hotspots to prevent a breakout.
Africa’s health ministers are set to meet on 8 May to adopt a set of measures to try to prevent an Indian-scale surge on the continent, though officials admit they would be largely helpless if it was allowed to take off.
India broke another record this week, with 412,262 new infections and 3,980 deaths on 6 May, bringing the total to 21.1 million cases and 230,168 deaths.
Nkengasong acknowledged this week that Africa had very little to offer against a massive surge of Covid-19 – except prevention.
“We can’t let out guard down,” he said, even though Africa was suffering “pandemic fatigue” as well as “prevention fatigue” after more than a year of battling Covid-19.
“We may be tired but the virus is not tired,” he said. “We could very easily have an Indian scenario in Africa.”
He urged Africans to keep up the same public health measures to prevent the spread of all Covid-19 variants, including physical distancing and, above all, wearing masks – which, he likes to say, are as good as vaccines.
Nkengasong noted that Covid-19 was still under control in Africa. Over the past week, the number of new infections recorded across the continent was about 65,000, a 10% drop on the week before. The number of deaths recorded during the week was 2,181, a 0.15% decrease from the week before.
But the Africa CDC head noted that there was no room for complacency. India’s figures had also been relatively low, at about 3,000 new infections a day in March, before they rocketed to the present daily increases of more than 400,000.
Nkengasong said that, on average, Africa’s health systems were too fragile to deal with such a wave of infections that had completely overwhelmed the Indian health system.
He said Africa had only received a total of 37.6 million vaccine doses, of which 22.2 million had been administered to just 1.1% of the continent’s population.
Africa was now experiencing an alarming vaccine vacuum, waiting for 220 million one-shot vaccines to arrive at the start of the third quarter, with an option for 180 million more.
On Saturday Nkengasong, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the African Union’s Covid-19 champion, AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and AU chairperson and president of the Democratic Republic of Congo Félix Tshisekedi are to convene an online meeting of all of Africa’s health ministers to draft a strategy to prevent an Indian-scale upsurge.
Nkengasong said the meeting would first review the AU’s continent-wide strategy for tackling Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic in February last year. It would then attempt to chart a way forward for the continent and the AU’s 55 member states.
This would include closer monitoring of the occurrence of the different coronavirus variant strains so far detected and identifying Covid-19 hotspots.
It would also include quantifying the availability of vital treatments such as oxygen, something that has proven to be a critical deficiency in India.
Nkengasong said he had recently briefed African ambassadors to the AU about the Africa CDC’s understanding of what had gone wrong in India. He said the main problem appeared to be that India had prematurely relaxed its public health measures. It had also loosened up controls on vast social gatherings, such as political rallies and religious ceremonies.
This had allowed the more easily transmittable new B.1.617 variant to seed itself and then take off.
“A combination of these factors laid fertile ground for a tsunami to occur in India,” he said.
Africa, Nkengasong said, should avoid making the same mistakes and not hold political rallies or allow large religious or other gatherings.
This would help prevent the “disastrous paradigm where health systems are overwhelmed. If you look at big cities like New Delhi, hospital beds are 80% to 90% full. If you looks at ICUs, almost 100% of them in those cities are being consumed by the Covid-19 situation.
“Our health systems on the continent are very fragile. We do not have the kind of supplies that India has. We don’t want to go there.”
Earlier, Nkengasong said it would be “catastrophic” for Africa’s health systems to try to bear the impact of a huge surge like India was experiencing.
“We don’t have enough oxygen, beds, vaccines or health workers to deal with such a massive attack,” he said. “But if we prevent it, we don’t need to get ourselves into a catastrophic situation. It’s very possible to prevent it and we have to prevent it.
“Let’s rally around, build our defences, so that we put the right number of measures in place and then hit the reset button. I’m sure we can avoid that scenario.”
Nkengasong warmly welcomed the US government’s decision announced on Wednesday that it had rescinded its opposition to moves – led by South Africa and India – to secure a waiver on the patent rights of pharmaceutical companies so that Covid-19 vaccines could be produced by others more cheaply.
But he also cautioned that measure would take a long time to translate into more vaccines. Africa’s focus would now be to get vaccines wherever it could “and get them into arms”. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.