A healthcare worker performs a PCR Covid-19 test in the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg on November 30, 2021.
Emmanuel Croset | AFP | Getty Images
After South Africa became the first country to identify the new Covid-19 variant of Omicron, South Africa is preparing for a fourth wave of infections and the government is considering vaccine mandates.
South African scientists discovered the strongly mutated variant last week, which the World Health Organization has now classified as a “worrying variant” and has now been identified in at least 24 countries around the world. The Dutch authorities say that omicron was already present in the Netherlands before South Africa reported it to WHO, which begs the question of how far the variant might have already spread.
Omicron is rapidly becoming the predominant variant in South Africa, with the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases saying it is seeing an “exponential increase in infections,” with 74% of the virus genomes sequenced last month being in the new variant .
The number of cases rose from a weekly average of 300 two weeks ago to 1,000 a day in the last week. The country recorded 8,561 cases on Wednesday.
In a televised address on Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa, epidemiologists and disease modelers warned that South Africa should expect a fourth wave of Covid-19 in early December, with the variant now being found in all provinces of the country.
Ramaphosa found that more than 25 million vaccine doses have been given since May, with around 36% of adults now fully vaccinated. However, Health Secretary Joe Phaahla said the daily vaccination rate fell below 130,000 last week, well below the government’s vaccination target of 300,000 per day.
Ramaphosa has criticized wealthy nations for not guaranteeing equal access to vaccines and criticized the numerous countries that immediately banned travel from South Africa and neighboring countries after the new variant was announced. The president said such bans were unjustified and “unfairly discriminate against our country and our South African sister countries”.
Daily Covid-19 cases in South Africa are on the rise as Omicron becomes the predominant variant of the country.
His remarks have since been repeated by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who accused countries that have banned travel to the region of “travel apartheid”.
“It is unacceptable that one part of the world, that is, one of the most vulnerable parts of the global economy, was sentenced to a lockout when it was he who revealed the existence of a new variant, which incidentally already existed in other parts of the world, including in Europe, “said Guterres on Wednesday.
Domestic reluctance to adopt vaccines is also contributing to the slowdown in South Africa. In an effort to increase vaccination rates, Ramaphosa announced that a task team would be set up to “conduct extensive consultations on the introduction of mandatory vaccination for certain activities and locations”.
However, no timeframe has been given for when this task team will report to the Inter-Ministerial Vaccination Committee, which will then make recommendations to the Cabinet.
In a note to investors on Monday, Louw Nel, senior political analyst at Oxford Economics Africa, and Jee-A van der Linde, economist, said there was too little evidence of government urgency in addressing the sensitive issue of vaccine mandates.
“The problem was bypassed before the local elections (LGE) on November 1st, but can no longer be avoided as vaccination rates are well below the level the country needs to achieve population immunity,” they noted.
“The establishment of a task team is very faithful to Mr Ramaphosa, whose preference for consultation and consensus-building is well documented, but that does not mean the government is willing to give up the carrot in favor of the whip.”
Ramaphosa has so far avoided introducing new social restrictions, keeping the country on high alert, which means that public gatherings are limited to 750 people indoors and 2,000 outdoors, while there is a curfew between midnight and 4 a.m. Although the government has promised to closely monitor infections and hospitalization rates, it is expected that any renewed measures would not be as severe as those introduced in December 2020 when the Delta variant fueled a second wave of infections.
The South African economy is likely to have contracted in the third quarter and tightened restrictions could continue to weigh on economic activity in the fourth quarter. However, Oxford Economics said the economy could kick off on a “much safer basis than previously thought” depending on the severity of the fourth wave in 2022.
The country’s PMI (Purchasing Managers’ Index) recovered strongly in November, rising from 53.6 points in October to 57.2 points, with manufacturing activity picking up strongly.
Economists fear, however, that the otherwise strong fourth quarter could be threatened as Omicron spreads like wildfire in South Africa.
“After slowing growth for the past two quarters, the latest reading suggests manufacturing was in much better shape to support headline growth in the fourth quarter ahead of a new wave of viruses,” said Virag Forizs, Emerging Markets Economist at Capital Wirtschaft.
“Officials will likely try to avoid economically damaging containment measures, but the risk of such restrictions will persist through the recovery in manufacturing and beyond.”