A drop in risk perception about COVID-19 in Africa, coupled with the emergence of new coronavirus variants have likely contributed to the surge of new cases of the viral infections and deaths on the continent, experts say.
“We have had fatigue in terms of people washing hands, wearing face masks and keeping distance and so the risk perception has dropped. People gathered during the festive season,’’ says Dr Ambrose Tulisuna, a scientist in the emergency preparedness department of World Health Organisation-Africa.
According to Dr Tulisuna, the coronavirus variants which were detected in South Africa and the United Kingdom (UK) may have become the predominant cause for the second wave of COVID-19 across countries in Africa.
“If these variants are more transmissible and they become the predominant variants, they could be contributing to the current upsurge,’’ says the epidemiologist who is the Programme Manager Emergency Preparedness-WHO Regional Office for Africa.
Over 175 000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 6200 deaths were reported in Africa in the last week while infections rose by 50% on the continent between 29 December 2020 and 25 January 2021, compared with the previous four weeks.
Data from the WHO-Africa show that in the past week, there has been a small dip in cases in South Africa, but 22 countries continue to see their case numbers surge.
Deaths rose two-fold in the same four-week period, with over 15 000 concentrated in 10 mainly southern and northern African nations, according to the data.
The 501Y.V2 variant, first identified in South Africa, is predominant and powering record case numbers in South Africa and the sub-region. It has been found in Botswana, Ghana, and Kenya, the French Indian Ocean region of Mayotte, Zambia and in 24 non-African nations.
The variant that was initially detected in the UK has been found in The Gambia and Nigeria, says the WHO
To further detect and deal with the new variants, the WHO says it has collaborated with the Africa Centres of Disease Control and Prevention (Africa-CDC) to set up a COVID-19 genomic sequencing laboratory network with laboratories in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda.
“Africa is at a crossroads. We must stick to our guns and double down on the tactics we know work so well. That is mask wearing, handwashing and safe social distancing. Countless lives depend on it,” suggests the WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti.
“Our shared goal is to get ahead of the virus. Unfortunately, the journey will be longer, harder and far more costly in the absence of consistent, all-of-society commitments to blocking infection,” said Dr Moeti during a virtual meeting on Thursday.