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Covid-19: How will the Omicron variant impact Africa?

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Tuesday, 30 November 2021 15:20, updated on Thursday, 2 December 2021 10:53

Ghana to start second vaccine doses with re-deployed Congo COVAX shots
Workers carry boxes of Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines, redeployed from the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana, May 7, 2021. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

International restrictions on African countries are once again being imposed as the Omicron variant has spread to Europe, with the first case detected in Belgium last week.

The variant B.1.1.52, also known as Omicron, was classified by the WHO as a “variant of concern” (VOC) on 26 November. The variant was first detected in South Africa on 24 November 2021.

According to a statement released by the organisation, “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”

As a result, the UK, US, Thailand and other countries have imposed restrictions on African nations, such as South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

There has been pushback from many African leaders, including South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor.

She says: “Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps.”

#VisitEthiopia in many unaffected parts of the Horn of Africa nation and make your own conclusions. Also, #OmicronVariant travel bans against Southern African countries [are] knee jerk [reactions].

According to a recommendation released by WHO, countries should work “in coordination with the international community”.

Economic impact

The discovery of the Omicron variant was ironically confirmed by a South African scientist. The country has the monitoring infrastructure to allow it to sequence new variants effectively.

But Omicron comes at a time when the country’s tourism was just starting to get back onto its feet. To date, R1bn ($61.9bn) in bookings have already been cancelled in recent days following travel restrictions imposed by many countries in response to the variant, reports Thomson Reuters Foundation. Tourism industry workers fear another round of  job losses.

“South Africa is being punished for its brilliant work in the field of science,” said Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, head of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), to Thomson Reuters Foundation.  

After the new variant was confirmed and announced, the South African rand fell to its weakest level in over a year on 25 November. It fell another 2.15% on the Friday 26 November after markets across Asia responded to the news in the morning.

Vaccines for all?

The new variant has drawn further attention to vaccine inequity on the continent, where the WHO’s overall figure for the fully vaccinated is 4.4%. Currently, in the UK, nearly 66% of the population has been vaccinated.

Data regarding the COVAX programme revealed that it comprised just 5% of all vaccines administered globally and recently announced it would miss its 2 billion target for 2021.

In October, an investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that it is “sidelining the organisations that represent the interests of poorer nations in its top-tier discussions, denying a voice to those who need the vaccine the most.”

Leaving countries largely unvaccinated, like many places across the continent, can open the possibilities to new, more harmful variants. Many countries with higher vaccination rates, such as the UK, France, and Canada, are currently offering booster jabs to eligible people, whilst hoarding vaccines for further use.

Burundi and Eritrea have yet to roll out vaccination programmes, and the pharmaceutical company Moderna refuses to share its vaccine recipe, citing intellectual property. This move will hold back African pharmaceutical companies that are currently trying to produce a replica.

The continent pushes forward

On 28 November, Ethiopia’s press secretary released a statement disagreeing with the travel bans.

“#VisitEthiopia in many unaffected parts of the Horn of Africa nation and make your own conclusions. Also, #OmicronVariant travel bans against Southern African countries [are] knee jerk [reactions],” she said.

The government of Ethiopia is currently embroiled in a conflict with the Tigray region in the north of the country, resulting in mass starvation and numerous war crimes on all sides of the war. If the new variant spreads more quickly, it would have a potentially dangerous impact on the region.

Ghana expects to push forward with its vaccination programme, making the jab mandatory for all groups, including public sector and health workers, as of 22 January 2022.

1.4 million people, out of Ghana’s 30 million population, remain fully vaccinated. Reasons for such low vaccine rates have been widely debated, with some medical professionals saying that people are more likely to take the vaccine when it is brought to their communities.

As of November, Ghana had received 12 million Covid-19 vaccines, with nine million more doses expected by the end of 2021. Most of the vaccinations have been received through the COVAX programme.

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