Omicron emergence sparks tension over vaccine hesitancy in South Africa

Residents of Gauteng, where the coronavirus variant was identified, say the festive season has been marred

South Africans living in areas hit hardest by a new wave of coronavirus infections say the Omicron variant has cast a pall over the country and reignited tension between those for and against vaccinations.

In Johannesburg, the capital of Gauteng province, new infections have risen sharply in recent weeks, helping to push the country’s seven-day average from 227 on November 18 to more than 4,500 10 days later, Johns Hopkins University says.

Gauteng accounted for about 72 per cent of new cases on November 30, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases says, but infections are increasing exponentially in most of South Africa’s other provinces.

Residents of South Africa’s most populous city told The National the surge in cases has struck a blow to the city’s economic recovery and cast a shadow over the festive season.

“You can certainly feel an air of uncertainty in the province and country at the moment,” said Roberto Pereira, 30, who lives in the city’s Parkmore district.

Elsa Glenn van Rooyen, 42, who lives in the city’s upmarket Randburg district, was looking forward to the start of “Dezemba” – the last month of the year at the height of the South African summer where locals reconnect with family and friends.

“Omicron has rather put a dampener on things,” said the video editor. “A new Covid wave is a huge blow to our flailing economy.

"The tourism industry will suffer especially, but many other industries too, especially with the travel restrictions.”

Tensions rise

The arrival of the new variant has also inflamed tension around the vaccination drive, Ms van Rooyen said.

In October, two men were arrested in Cape Town when an anti-vaccination and anti-mask demonstration turned violent.

On Monday, social media posts claimed anti-lockdown and vaccination marches were planned in Durban on Friday, as well as a national shutdown in response to the Omicron variant on Thursday.

But Gauteng daily newspaper The Citizen debunked the posts.

The Omicron variant, first detected on November 11, has more than 50 mutations and there are concerns it will be able to evade vaccines.

Despite Covid-19 shots being available to all adults in South Africa, scepticism over their safety and effectiveness is widespread and vaccination rates remain low.

Only about 24 per cent of South African adults had been fully vaccinated by November 30, according to Our World in Data, well below the government’s target of 70 per cent by the end of the year.

Last week, Reuters reported that the government had asked Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer to delay vaccine deliveries because the country has too much stock.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday said the government was discussing a vaccine mandate.

Quote
We had mutations even before we had any vaccination, and we know that viruses are just going to mutate, but I think low vaccination coverage does contribute
Dr Waasila Jassat, public health specialist

Dr Waasila Jassat, a Gauteng public-health specialist at the NICD, told The National that the slow vaccination campaign was only one reason why new coronavirus variants have emerged in South Africa, where the Beta strain was also discovered.

“It is true that we are lagging behind in vaccination coverage. Lower vaccination means more opportunity for the virus to mutate,” Dr Jassat said.

“But remember, we had mutations even before we had any vaccination, and we know that viruses are just going to mutate, but I think low vaccination coverage does contribute.”

Dr Jassat’s team has been “deep sampling” the virus since the start of the epidemic, meaning they may be more likely to detect a variant more quickly than scientists in other countries.

When the variant was first identified last month, the US, EU, Israel, UK and a host of other countries quickly blocked travel from several southern African countries.

But Omicron has since been identified in at least 24 countries, including several in Europe, and South Africans feel their country is being penalised unfairly for its scientific achievements.

Mitchell Said, 39, a resident of Killarney, Johannesburg, has been in isolation since Monday, when he was told that his son was in contact with a schoolmate who had tested positive.

He said the travel bans against African countries revealed “a colonial and racist mindset”.

“We're almost being punished for the good work of being able to detect the variant and alert the world to it,” Mr Said said.

South Africa has been hit hard by coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

Health experts also believe South Africa’s high incidence of HIV – 7.5 million people are believed to be living with it – could be another reason the virus mutated and spread in the country.

Dr Jassat said that untreated HIV, which compromises the immune system, could be “a good breeding ground for creating Covid mutations”.

“Of course, it is thought that mutations are more likely to occur in people with immunocompromised states where the virus fails to shed for many months, and can mutate and we know our HIV prevalence is really high in South Africa,” she said.

Reasons to be hopeful

Despite the gloom brought by the new variant, there was some reason to be hopeful. Dr Jassat said many of the admissions she had seen in recent weeks “seem to be less severe” than with other variants.

New patients, she said, often reported flu-like symptoms but not a loss of taste or smell, which is among the defining symptoms of previous strains.

Omicron has mainly infected young people, she said, with “a much higher incidence in those under 30".

Of the 400 to 500 hospital admissions in the Gauteng municipality Tshwane, where Dr Jassat works, 11 per cent have been in children under two years old, she said, which is a trend not seen in previous waves.

“But remember that hospital admissions evolve over time,” Dr Jassat said. “You could be admitted in a general ward and then a few days later, deteriorate to needing oxygen.

"So I think we need a week or so for the data to stabilise, to get a better understanding of the severity of these admissions."

Updated: December 3rd 2021, 10:52 AM