NAIROBI, Kenya – In the past three weeks, the percentage of Kenyans who tested positive for the coronavirus has increased from less than 1 percent to more than 30 percent – the highest rate of positivity in the country to date.
In Uganda, nearly 50 lawmakers and their staff, some vaccinated, tested positive this week after participating in a sports tournament in neighboring Tanzania.
And in Zimbabwe, exploding infections have led the government to put new restrictions on businesses and incoming travelers.
Countries across Africa are reporting spikes in Covid cases and health officials are concerned about how the new variant of Omicron will affect the world’s least vaccinated continent. Omicron, which was first discovered in southern Africa, remains highly contagious but has so far caused fewer deaths and hospital admissions than previous variants like Delta.
The latest wave comes as many African countries reopened, with companies hoping for a robust Christmas season – only for governments to reintroduce curfews and quarantines and impose new vaccine mandates.
Even when the UK and United States lifted Omicron-related travel restrictions for South African countries last week, Africans faced new travel restrictions from other countries due to the rise in infections. From Saturday are the United Arab Emirates Suspend entry for travelers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania and have additional requirements for travelers from Ghana and Uganda.
“Unfortunately, we will be celebrating the end of the year in the middle of the fourth wave that is sweeping across the continent,” says Dr. John N. Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference Thursday.
At least 21 African countries are currently experiencing a fourth wave of the pandemic, according to the Africa CDC. Three countries – Algeria, Kenya and Mauritius – experience a fifth.
In countries like Botswana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zimbabwe, cases have more than doubled in the past few weeks. The positivity rates have also skyrocketed: Malawi reported a positivity rate of 46.29 percent on Thursday, compared with just 1.54 percent on November 30. Infections among young people in Uganda are on the rise, with some epidemiologists attributing the younger age groups as the most active during the holiday season.
Omicron is racing through Africa, now 22 nations are reporting the variant. It is not known whether the highly contagious variant is the dominant one or whether it is driving the wave of infections across Africa. However, health experts say that even in countries where genome sequencing is not readily available, the sudden surge in cases could point to the spread of the Omicron variant.
And experts say Covid infections overall are likely to be higher in Africa due to the lack of widespread testing in many countries.
Early data from South Africa last week suggested that the country’s omicron wave may have peaked as officials stopped tracing efforts and lifted isolation for people who may have been exposed but showed no symptoms. Another study showed that people diagnosed with Omicron in South Africa were less likely to be hospitalized than people with previous variants like Delta.
Dr. However, Nkengasong warned that the data from South Africa may not apply to other countries because the population there is relatively young and the vaccination rate is high compared to many other African countries.
“Let’s be careful that we don’t extrapolate what we see in South Africa to the continent or the world,” he said.
Doctors are reporting an increasing number of infections in hospitals in many African cities.
Tinashe Gede, an immunologist who works at Parirenyatwa Public General Hospital in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, said he had seen an increase in admissions but without ventilators and life support equipment. A significant number of new cases he treated were breakthrough infections, he said, but the symptoms weren’t severe.
Health workers also get sick.
According to Linos Dhire, the hospital’s spokesman, at least 436 health workers were seen at Dr. Gedes Hospital tested positive.
Dr. Nelly Bosire, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Nairobi, said she had to call 10 pediatricians last night to find one for a newborn. Eight of them, she said, would either cough, isolate, or have a confirmed diagnosis of Covid. The virus spread like “wildfire,” she said.
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Dr. World Health Organization regional director Matshidiso Moeti said she was still “cautiously optimistic” that serious illnesses and deaths in the fourth wave will remain low.
But slow vaccine rollouts could hurt those prospects, she added, as only six African countries have met the WHO-set target of fully vaccinating 40 percent of their population.
Even as vaccine shipments arrive, many African countries continue to face the challenge of getting them into the arms of the people. It is difficult to get the vaccines to rural areas and to find enough temperature controlled warehouses. Vaccine skepticism also plays a role; Dr. Nkengasong said about 20 percent of Africans remain reluctant to get vaccinated.
Some of the vaccines donated do not have a long shelf life, which is leading the authorities in countries like Nigeria to destroy them.
In Kenya, the introduction of vaccines is being hampered because health authorities have not launched nationwide campaigns to convince their population of the benefits of Covid vaccines, said Anand Madhvani, who Covid Kenya network Coordinator.
At the moment, governments are trying to put in place a mixed bag of rules to contain the new wave of infections. Rwanda imposed again a night curfew and suspended concerts. Several nations, including Botswana, Ghana, and Malawi, have introduced vaccination regulations aimed at the local population or incoming travelers.
On Wednesday, the Kenyan Ministry of Health said it would ban unvaccinated people from public spaces, despite a court recently suspended the vaccination mandate. By Friday, some shopping malls in the capital, Nairobi, had begun asking shoppers and employees to provide proof of vaccination.
The surge in cases, and the resulting restrictions, are changing vacation plans for those like Denis Munjanja, a Harare businessman who contracted Covid last year. Mr Munjanja said he was afraid of catching the virus again and he and his family have decided to stay inside during the Christmas season instead of mingling with loved ones.
Almost two years after a pandemic, he said this wasn’t the festive mood he was hoping for. But he said, “We just have to be extra careful.”
Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi and Jeffrey Moyo from Harare, Zimbabwe. Lynsey Chutel Reporting from Johannesburg contributed.