Coronavirus cases across Africa have surged by 25 per cent over the last week, sparking fears that the continent of 1.3 billion people is unprepared to deal with a “third wave”.
The rise in cases stands in stark contrast to all other regions where infection rates are falling, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) statistics.
The ongoing spread of the disease pushed Uganda to reimpose a strict lockdown on Monday, with more African countries expected to follow. While Africa defied doomsday predictions that Covid-19 would wreak havoc during the early stages of the pandemic, the slow rollout of vaccines has led to a creeping rise in cases across the continent.
To date, just 3.5 million cases have been reported in Africa – compared to 68 million in the Americas and 54.5 million in Europe – though this is likely an underestimate.
But as cases continue to decline in much of the world – Europe saw a 17 per cent fall over the last seven days, while cases have dropped by more than 30 per cent in south east Asia – the opposite is true across much of Africa.
WHO's weekly epidemiological report warned Covid-19 is surging in 14 African countries, including eight which have witnessed a 30 per cent rise in infections. Uganda and Zambia reported the highest number of new cases at 137 per cent and 191 per cent respectively.
Dr Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, told a press conference on Tuesday that the pandemic has been “hidden” in Africa until now. “The low numbers over the past year have not really given us a true picture,” she said. “Tests are very few and far between and so we don’t know what’s really happening.”
India's experience of a brutal resurgence have also stoked fears that Africa’s weak health infrastructure will be unable to cope with any massive rise in cases. The WHO urged countries in southern and eastern Africa to boost critical care capacity as infections are likely to spread during the cold season.
Experts believe that cases will continue to rise until African countries can vaccinate the majority of their citizens. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said: “It’s crucial that we swiftly get vaccines into the arms of Africans at high risk of falling seriously ill and dying of Covid-19.”
However, Africa’s vaccine rollout has so far been plagued by procurement and distribution issues. Only around two per cent of Africa’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, compared to 24 per cent worldwide.
Several African countries have also been forced to throw away vaccines that they were unable to distribute before the expiry date.
The Democratic Republic of Congo said it could not use most of the 1.7 million AstraZeneca doses it received from the Covax facility, a global partnership to provide poorer countries with vaccines, and it shared around 75 per cent with nearby nations.
South Africa, the worst affected African country, has only fully vaccinated around half a million people. Many African leaders and health officials have blamed western countries for “hoarding” vaccines.
A group of former presidents and prime ministers, including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, signed an appeal on Monday urging the world's richest nations to pay for vaccines in poorer countries, ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall on Friday.
“I think it is no exaggeration to say that the decisions made by the G7 will determine who is vaccinated and who remains unvaccinated and at risk of dying,” Mr Brown told a briefing this week.
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