Several African Countries Reimpose Restrictions While COVID-19 Cases Rise

International debates continue over universal access to vaccines and other treatments

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

In at least three Southern African Development Community (SADC) states a number of high-profile political and military officials have contracted and succumbed to COVID-19. African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Jackson Mthembu was laid to rest on January 24 becoming the latest to fall victim to the virus.

Mthembu had most recently served as Minister of the Presidency in South Africa where the ANC has maintained power for 27 years since the overturning of the racist apartheid system. Earlier Mthembu had been a leader within the National Assembly in Cape Town representing the ruling party inside the legislative body.

Condolences to the family of Mthembu flooded in from across South Africa and SADC region. President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his deep sorrow at the death of the ANC official, former National Assembly leader and cabinet minister saying that the country must intensify its efforts to defeat the virus.

Also, in the neighboring Republic of Zimbabwe, Foreign Minister S.B. Moyo died from the highly infectious disease after being hospitalized during mid-January. The minister was among five other government cabinet members, former military officials, and leaders of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), who have died as a result of the pandemic.

Malawi has been a source of rising infection rates and deaths as well. Local Government Minister Lingson Berekanyama and Transport Minister Sidik Mia, both senior members of the Congress Party, died earlier in January. In addition, former Governor of the Malawi Central Bank, Francis Perekamoyo, along with the Principal Secretary to the Ministry of Information, Ernest Kantchentche, lost their battles to COVID-19 during previous weeks. The SADC states have experienced a surge in infections and hospitalizations since the beginning of the year.

Concerns Mount over New Variants of COVID-19

Although during 2020, African Union (AU) member states have recorded far fewer cases of coronavirus infections per capita than many western industrialized countries in Europe and the United States as well as Brazil and India, the advent of a new variant of the virus in South Africa has raised alarms on the continent and internationally. Many governments have imposed lockdowns and severe restrictions on movements and gatherings which closed schools, businesses, religious institutions and social gatherings since March 2020.

However, the economic and social impact of these measures left many workers unemployed. In South Africa, the ANC government began several months ago to reopen the economy allowing people to return to their places of employment and to educational institutions. Border crossings had been closed or severely restricted throughout the SADC and other regions of the continent. This lessening of border crossing restrictions and the spike in coronavirus cases has served to spread the virus on a broader inter-continental level.

Consequently, the number of infections has increased substantially necessitating the reenactment of these restrictive measures in order to curb the increase in illnesses and deaths. South Africa is once again exercising rigorous screening for those entering its borders. However, many areas of the SADC region and the continent as a whole have porous boundaries allowing people to cross into other states without going through customs checks related travel documentation and exposure to the virus.

Moreover, the presence of new COVID-19 variants in Britain and South Africa, which are said to be far more easily transmittable and possibly more virulent, has created international concern. Scientists are learning more about the character of the emerging variants and are suggesting that the existing vaccines designed to guard against infections would be effective in curbing the spread.

An interview published by the World Health Organization (WHO) with Professor Francisca Mutapi, specialist in Global Health Infection and Immunity at the University of Edinburgh, says of the current situation that:

“It is difficult to know the total number of variants circulating in Africa because we do not have systematic sequencing surveillance from all the countries. To date there are just under 5,000 publicly available sequences from 24 of the 47 countries in the World Health Organization African (WHO) region. Using these data, we have identified 145 lineages from the region. Of these lineages, the variants causing concern currently are the B.1.351 or the 501Y.V2 that was first identified in South Africa. Outside South Africa, this has been reported in Botswana and Zambia. We await the sequence information of the new variant that has been reported in Nigeria.”

This same researcher goes on in this interview to discuss the viability of the existing vaccines in combating the further infections of COVID-19 within the geo-political regions where the new variants are being identified. Mutapi emphasized :

“In terms of natural immunity or immune-derived therapeutics, mutations in the spike protein of the B.1.351 or 501Y.V2 may, in theory, reduce, but not obliterate the recognition of the virus by antibodies. This is because, in practice, the human immune system will recognize more than a single region of the spike protein. The spike protein is made up of 1273 amino acids and changes in one or a few of its amino acids is not enough to stop recognition of the whole protein. Currently, most COVID-19 vaccines target the spike protein. There are some vaccines such as inactivated virus vaccines developed in China that target the whole virus. Mutations may reduce vaccine efficacy directed against the spike protein but will not obliterate their effects. As explained, this is because the immune responses they induce target more than a single part of the spike protein. Inactivated vaccines target an even greater array of viral proteins, inducing several protective immune responses. This instills redundancy in the protective immune responses. To date, there is no indication that mutations recorded in the B.1.351 or 501Y.V2 variant affect the function of drugs.”

Such indications from medical specialists provide some assurances in regard to the vaccines which are being developed in the U.S., Europe, China, Cuba and other parts of the world. Nonetheless, the AU Chairperson, Republic of South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa, has warned the imperialist states to not engage in “vaccine nationalism”, that is the inclination to only be concerned about those residing in imperialist countries while the majority of the world population is being left on its own to acquire the necessary personal protective equipment and vaccines to administer to their own peoples.

Vaccines and Other Mitigation Tools Must be Shared Equitably

President Ramaphosa addressed the virtual World Economic Forum (WEF) based in Davos, Switzerland on January 26 criticizing the way in which the access to vaccinations is being handled on a global scale. The president utilized this international platform to illustrate that:

“We are all not safe if some countries are vaccinating their people and some countries are not vaccinating.  The rich countries of the world went out and acquired large doses of vaccines from developers and manufacturers, and some countries have even gone beyond and acquired four times what their population needs. We must all act together in combating Coronavirus because it affects us all equally. Therefore, our remedies and actions to combat it must also be equal and overarching for all of us, and not be something that special or certain countries have on their own to the exclusion of others. With the greatest burden of disease on the continent, South Africa has recorded around 1.4 million COVID-19 cases, and more than 40 000 people have lost their lives.”

These comments by the South African president goes to the essence of the ongoing divide between imperialism and the developing countries. Due to the legacies of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the African continent has been systematically stifled in its aims of acquiring the economic capacity to build the necessary governmental infrastructure to meet the needs of its population of more than 1.3 billion. Internationalists and anti-imperialists in the western states must join those within Africa, the Asia-Pacific and Latin America in their demands for equal access to all treatment methods in existence on a global scale



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