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Military comes to aid of South Africa’s hospitals amid third wave

Poet Gcina Mhlophe getting vaccinated in Durban, South Africa

Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images

WHILE global coronavirus case numbers continue to decline, cases are surging in some African countries. South Africa has sent military medical personnel to hospitals in its Gauteng region, the commercial heart of the country, to help them cope with soaring numbers of covid-19 patients.

Experts in South Africa attribute its third wave to increased social mixing. “It’s happening because we were pretty relaxed in terms of restrictions, we were allowing people to mix quite freely, even pretty big gatherings were allowed,” says Richard Lessells at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

The country is reporting nearly 200 cases per million people per day. During its second wave, it reported just over 300 cases per million at the peak. With case numbers climbing fast, the third might yet surpass the second.

The third wave is being caused by the beta variant behind the country’s second wave, says Lessells. This variant evolved in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa towards the end of 2020, and has spread to many other countries. The delta and alpha variants are also present, but are responsible for a small proportion of cases in South Africa.

“People are desperate for us to say the delta variant is causing the third wave because they feel like they have to have an explanation for why the third wave is happening,” says Lessells. “Actually at the moment the evidence suggests it’s still the beta variant.”

There were far fewer introductions of delta in South Africa than in the UK, making it harder for it to spread widely.

The reason why the Gauteng region is being particularly hard hit now could be because it wasn’t so badly affected in South Africa’s second wave, says Lessells, meaning fewer people have immunity. The arrival of winter could also be playing a part, as people spend more time indoors.

The country has tightened restrictions again, but a former South African government adviser, Salim Abdool Karim, told the BBC World Service that these restrictions don’t go far enough to stop all modes of transmission.

Cases are also rising in several other countries in Africa. “In Africa, the number of cases and deaths increased by almost 40 per cent in the past week, and in some countries the number of deaths… quadrupled,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, said on 21 June.

“In Africa, the number of cases and deaths increased by almost 40 per cent in the past week”

There are reports of oxygen shortages in some countries’ hospitals, including Somalia and Uganda.

In terms of the numbers of cases and deaths being reported, the continent doesn’t look in particularly bad shape, said Mike Ryan at the WHO on 18 June. But, because there is so little testing in most African countries, it is thought these numbers don’t represent the true picture. “It’s the trajectory that is very, very concerning,” Ryan said.

Lessells, who is part of a genomic surveillance network in South Africa, says the network is working with other countries in the region to identify which variants are present but that because there are long delays in sequencing, for instance because of difficulties getting samples across borders, the picture isn’t very up to date.

What is known is that Africa has the lowest vaccination rate of any continent, with just 2.4 per cent of people having had at least one dose as of 20 June.

Ghebreyesus said vaccine inequity was one of the reasons for the increases in cases and deaths. The WHO is setting up a technology transfer hub in South Africa to start manufacturing mRNA vaccines locally, but Ghebreyesus said this would make a difference only in the medium term, not the short term.

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