Africa is failing to contain second COVID-19 wave, new study reports

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

March 26, 2021

As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the African continent, governments there have failed to replicate the response that effectively contained the first wave, a new study finds.

The tepid response, coupled with the spread of more aggressive variants of the coronavirus, has resulted in a 30 percent increase in the number of daily infections, according to a Lancet study led by researchers from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC). The report analyzed data collected between Feb. 14 and Dec. 31, 2020.

Yet despite the rise in cases, most African countries implemented fewer public health measures than they did when the pandemic first hit. More than half of the continent’s 109,000 deaths have been recorded in the last four months alone.

Daniel Otunge, director of the of Kenya-based Africa Science Media Center (AfriSMC), told the Alliance for Science that the study ought to be an eye-opener for African governments that have relaxed COVID-19 control measures against the advice of experts. Governments need to reintroduce tougher containment measures and expand information and education campaigns, as well as communicate about behavioral changes, he noted.

“I say this because already countries are experiencing the third wave of COVID-19 infections that are more deadly than the first and the second waves,” Otunge added. “Intensive care units (ICUs) are full to capacity and patients are being delicately transported across the country in search of ICU beds. Unfortunately, a number of them die in the process. Therefore, the time to reintroduce the lockdowns and to expand educational activities is now.”

Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, agreed.  “These insights reveal a need to re-emphasize the importance of abiding by measures that aim to strike a fine balance between controlling the spread of COVID-19 and sustaining economies and people’s livelihoods.”

Nkengasong also emphasized the urgent need to ramp up the vaccine rollout on the continent. “The World Health Organization, Africa-CDC and African governments working together with the international community should do everything possible to ensure universal access to COVID-19 vaccines in Africa to avoid an impending disaster of unimaginable proportions,” he said.

Dr. Michael Owusu, a virologist and lecturer at the Medical Diagnostic Department of the Kwame Nkrumah University in Ghana, said that an aggressive vaccine campaign, rather than the re-introduction of lockdowns, is the way forward.

“If you weigh the impact of the lockdowns, it has devastated many families,” Owusu told the Alliance for Science in an earlier interview. “Some have businesses that haven’t survived… and many people in the informal sector are struggling. So, lockdown is not something you want to recommend for different places in Africa. Vaccine is the only way to go.”

Some 96 percent of African countries had at least five strict public health and safety measures in place by the middle of April 2020, including international travel controls, school closures, cancellation of public events and restrictions on gatherings. But most of these measures were gradually relaxed by the end of July, when the continent went beyond the peak of the first wave.

Despite facing a second wave of cases and new, more transmissible variants of the virus, many countries had not implemented the same degree of public health and safety measures as they had early on in the pandemic, the study noted.  “Of the 38 countries that had previously experienced, or were experiencing, a second wave, and recorded [public health, social and safety measures] PHSMs, almost 45 percent had fewer – typically two less – in place during the second wave,” the study found.

The relaxation in COVID-19 containment protocols and a drop in adherence to public health measures after the first wave, likely due to public fatigue and economic necessity, are thought to have contributed to the greater impacts observed during the second wave. “Increasing reports of PHSM adherence fatigue leaves the continent’s population at risk and highlights the need to reinvigorate and update existing communication strategies,” the authors wrote.

“These data indicate that member States not only need to remain vigilant in collecting and analyzing COVID-19 data to inform PHSM adjustments in place, but they also need to monitor PHSM adherence and ensure public health and case management capacities are sustained as cases rise,” they added.

Image: Empty street in Cape Town, South Africa, during one of the world’s strictest national COVID-19 lockdowns in April 2020. Shutterstock/Micha Serraf