By Annabelle Timsit
South Africa has recorded a sharp increase in coronavirus cases, including among children under two years old, a top epidemiologist said on Monday, as the country reckons with the consequences of being among the first to report the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Healthcare providers and officials said they are making preparations to deal with what is effectively a fourth wave of the pandemic in the country - including by ensuring there are enough paediatric hospital beds to deal with the possible increase in young children's hospital admissions.
"I am expecting we will top over 10 000 cases by the end of the week per day," South African epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim said during a virtual government-led news briefing.
He noted, however, that vaccines still appeared to be effective in avoiding serious symptoms. "We can expect that we will still see high effectiveness for hospitalization and severe disease, and that protection of the vaccines is likely to remain strong."
According to the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality, which includes the heavily affected Gauteng Province, between Nov. 14 and 28, the age group with the highest total number of hospital admissions for Covid were those under the age of two. During those two weeks, 62 under-2-year-olds were admitted compared with 42 admissions for the ages 30 to 32.
The experts clarified they do not know what share of the cases are tied to the omicron variant vs. delta and other variants but said they hoped to know more in the coming days.
The alarm over the rise in infant hospitalizations came as South Africa, its neighbours and African leaders denounced the travel bans that were hastily implemented by developed nations after news of the variant first broke.
The World Health Organization on Monday said the bans discourage countries from being transparent about their work on the virus.
"South Africa and Botswana should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant; not penalized," said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the opening of the 74th World Health Assembly. "Indeed, omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics. Our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores."
The United States, Canada, Britain, the European Union and others have moved in recent days to restrict travel from at least seven countries in southern Africa, including Botswana, Eswatini and South Africa. Rwanda and Mauritius suspended incoming and outgoing flights from South Africa, while the Seychelles closed its borders to travellers from seven southern African nations.
The omicron variant has already been detected in more than a dozen countries and is thought to be present in more. The decisions have reignited a debate, begun early in the pandemic, about the effectiveness and fallout of travel bans on particular countries in a globalized world.
Health Minister Mathume Joe Phaahla characterized the bans as "an attempt to try and give a false sense of security from this pandemic to the citizens of those countries."
Malawi's president, Lazarus Chakwera, meanwhile, said the bans suggested a fear of Africa among some countries.
"The unilateral travel bans now imposed on [Southern African Development Community] countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia, and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia," he wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday.
On Friday, the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "strongly" discouraged travel bans in a statement, emphasizing instead the imposition of public health measures such as mask-wearing.
Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for South Africa's Foreign Ministry, said in the same briefing that he is especially disappointed in fellow African nations that have restricted travel from South Africa because they understand the impact these bans can have on the tourism sector and the broader economic recovery.
Monyela called the move "sad," "unwarranted" and "not based on science," adding that he and other officials are engaging with those countries to persuade them to reverse their decision.
"We will continue to engage to try and show them the senselessness of this particular action," Phaahla, the health minister, said. "Because we didn't close ourselves out of the world, they did so. We really just hope that sense will prevail and sooner rather than later they will see the wastefulness or lack of sense of what they've done."