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Covid cases surge while vaccines stagnate in Africa, as experts urge greater global contribution

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Key Points
  • Last week, the continent surpassed its second-wave peak of 528,000 active cases in January, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and aggregated by the BBC, with active cases now sitting at 642,823. 
Health workers chat near an ambulance at the parking lot of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, amid a nationwide coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, in Pretoria, South Africa, January 11, 2021.
Siphiwe Sibeko | Reuters

African nations are bracing for what is expected to be the continent's worst wave of Covid-19 yet, with vaccine supplies continuing to hamper recovery efforts.

Last week, the continent surpassed its second-wave peak of 528,000 active cases in January, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and aggregated by the BBC, with active cases now sitting at 642,823. 

Across Africa, cases rose by almost 200% between June and July and the rolling weekly average of daily new deaths has surged since the start of June, with the sharp inclines attributed primarily to the rapid spread of the highly-transmissible delta variant.

A total of 36 countries reported a rise in active infections last week, while 15 posted declines and three recorded no change. Meanwhile, 12 countries have now detected "variants of concern," nine of which are battling Delta. 

The One Campaign, an international nonprofit focusing on extreme poverty and preventable disease, highlighted that testing remains "woefully low." It also noted that limited data reporting means the understanding of the evolution of the pandemic is based primarily on around a dozen countries, which are able to conduct mass testing and report reliable data. 

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"Hospitalisations increased by 40% across the continent in the week to 20 June, and by a further 42% the week after, stretching healthcare services to breaking point," the report said. 

"Consequently, several countries are experiencing severe shortages of life-saving medical treatments, with reports of patients dying while waiting for a hospital bed." 

The organization also highlighted that vaccine supply is set to outstrip demand in the G-7 major economies by the end of the summer. One's Africa Covid Tracker indicates that of more than 3 billion doses administered globally, less than 2% were in Africa. 

"These same countries have purchased enough doses to vaccinate their entire population and still have more than 2.5 billion doses left over, which could be used to reduce the spread of variants, reopen the global economy, and end the global pandemic faster," the report added. One has highlighted that this quantity would suffice in protecting the entire adult population of Africa. 

Daily confirmed cases across Africa have spiked from a recent low of 7,849 on May 17 to more than 36,700 as of Monday, according to a seven-day rolling average from Our World in Data, while total vaccinations have increased over the same period from 1.8 per 100 people to 3.9.  

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Over the same period, Europe has seen its total vaccinations rise from 39.8 per 100 people to 69.8, and the U.S. has climbed from 54.8 to 74.7. 

The World Bank and the African Union's Covid-19 Vaccine Acquisition Task Team agreed last month to collaborate on the deployment of vaccines for 400 million Africans, while G-7 leaders pledged a further 870 million doses to support equitable access at June's summit. 

However in June, the WHO's COVAX facility, aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines worldwide, was forced to lower its 2021 targets from 27% coverage of its target lower-income countries' populations to 23%. One also pointed out that recent pledges on vaccine sharing, including from the G-7, are nowhere near the 11 billion doses required to reach global herd immunity. 

Economic 'speed bump in the road'? 

Almost half of the new cases recorded last week were in South Africa, which has now reported more than 2 million cases and 62,171 deaths. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has previously decried what he termed "vaccine apartheid" on the part of major economies for hoarding supplies. 

The recent spike has led to a re-imposition of level four containment measures, the second-highest tier available. These include an extended curfew and bans on all gatherings, alcohol sales and leisure travel in and out of the densely-populated Gauteng region, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.

However, economists do not expect this to significantly impact the country's economic outlook. South African Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Kuben Naidoo has stated that the restrictions will be a "speed bump on the road." 

Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, suggested in a note Friday that interest rates will likely be raised later and more slowly than investors currently anticipate.  

South Africa's closely-watched manufacturing PMI (purchasing managers' index) edged lower in June but remained robust given the severe third wave the country faces. 

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"For the manufacturing sector at least, no limits have been imposed on operating capacity (although beverage producers will suffer due to the latest alcohol ban)," Tuvey said.  

"That said, the recovery still faces a number of headwinds including slow vaccination progress, persistent power problems and the dampening effect of fiscal austerity on demand." 

Sharp increases in caseloads have also been recorded in Tunisia, Namibia and Rwanda in recent weeks, while Zimbabwe has introduced adjusted level four lockdown measures. 

NKC African Economics' Jee-A van der Linde suggested that the restrictions in South Africa and neighboring Zimbabwe will not prevent a third wave, while Zimbabwean regulations are likely to hit economic activity more substantially. 

"Zimbabwe faces a myriad of complex economic issues which have been in place long before the pandemic, and meaningful policy changes are needed to address them," he said in a note Thursday.  

"Even if the political will existed, it would take time to implement the changes and current policy pronouncements have an air of defense as opposed to progress."