‘Brutal’ third COVID-19 wave hits Africa as vaccination slow

‘Brutal’ third COVID-19 wave hits Africa as vaccination slow
Above, patient receives a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Sudan’s capital Khartoum on March 9, 2021. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 25 June 2021

‘Brutal’ third COVID-19 wave hits Africa as vaccination slow

‘Brutal’ third COVID-19 wave hits Africa as vaccination slow
  • Africa is still the world’s least-affected continent after Oceania
  • Compounding Africa’s third wave are immunization hitches, the spread of more transmissible virus variants and winter temperatures

JOHANNESBURG: Africa is facing a vicious coronavirus resurgence, with unprecedented hospital admissions and fatalities pushing health facilities to the brink as the continent falls far behind in the global vaccination drive.
With just under 5.3 million reported cases and around 139,000 deaths among its nearly 1.3 billion people, Africa is still the world’s least-affected continent after Oceania, according to an AFP tally.
So far African nations have been spared disasters comparable to Brazil or India.
But the pandemic is resurging at an alarming rate in at least 12 countries, with continental cases expected to hit a record peak in around three weeks.
“The third wave is picking up speed, spreading faster, hitting harder,” World Health Organization Africa director Matshidiso Moeti warned Thursday. “The latest surge threatens to be Africa’s worst yet.”
Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) director John Nkengasong on Thursday described the third wave as “extremely brutal” and “very devastating.”
And Liberia’s President George Weah has warned the wave is “far more alarming than a year ago” as hospitals overflow in his country.
Compounding Africa’s third wave are immunization hitches, the spread of more transmissible virus variants and winter temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Delta variant, first detected in India, has so far been reported in 14 African countries, making up the bulk of new cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, according to the WHO.
Doctors in South Africa, which accounts for more than 35 percent of all cases recorded on the continent, are struggling with an unprecedented influx of patients.
Unlike past waves, this time “the hospital system is not coping,” said doctors’ association chief Angelique Coetzee.
South Africa’s average new daily infections have increased 15-fold since early April, with hospital admissions rising around 60 percent.
Namibia and Zambia are also seeing steep infection curves.
Zambia’s health ministry has reported an “unprecedented” number of Covid-19 deaths piling pressure on mortuaries while Africa CDC said the country was “overwhelmed.”
With similar trends in Uganda, Health Minister Jane Ruth Acheng blamed highly infectious variants for the new spread, “different from the second wave” with a large number of young people hospitalized.
Uganda is one of the countries facing reported oxygen shortages, although Acheng denied civil society groups’ claim that the shortfall amounts to 24.5 million liters per day.
Governments are again tightening restrictions, including a new nationwide lockdown in Uganda and a tougher curfew in 13 Kenyan counties.
At the same time the pace of vaccinations is struggling to get off the ground.
According to the WHO, about one percent of the continent’s population is fully vaccinated — the lowest ratio globally — and 90 percent of African nations will miss a target to inoculate a tenth of their populations by September.
“We are running a race behind time, the pandemic is ahead of us. We are not winning in Africa this battle against the virus,” said Africa CDC’s Nkengasong.
“It’s frightening what is going on on the continent,” he added.
A recent pledge by Western leaders to donate one billion vaccine doses to poorer countries has been widely criticized for being too slow.
Cases are “outpacing vaccinations,” Moeti said. “Africa urgently needs a million more vaccines. We need a sprint.”
Several countries have failed to administer jabs from the UN-backed Covax scheme before their use-by date because of logistical failures and vaccine hesitancy.
Malawi destroyed almost 20,000 expired AstraZeneca doses in May, while the DRC and South Sudan have returned more than two million shots to the UN to avoid a similar scenario.
Authorities in Congo-Brazzaville are concerned over the slow take-up of almost 100,000 Chinese-made vaccines expiring in July.
A surge in coronavirus cases in India, the world’s main AstraZeneca supplier, has delayed Covax deliveries to Africa.
Malawi exhausted its stocks last week, just as thousands were due for their second shot.
And hundreds of frustrated Zimbabweans protested last month after Harare’s main vaccination center ran out of jabs.
South Africa says it has secured enough Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to immunize 67 percent of its 59 million inhabitants.
But the rollout has been hit by setbacks and only 2.2 million people — health care workers and over 60s — have received a jab so far.
“The lack of vaccines in a region with high levels of poverty and inequality means many people feel they are just waiting to die,” said Amnesty International’s regional director Deprose Muchena.


Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years
Updated 31 min 26 sec ago

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years
  • Country has been in turmoil since the army ousted Aung San Suu Kyi in February
  • A resurgent virus wave has also amplified havoc, with many hospitals empty of pro-democracy medical staff

YANGON: Myanmar’s junta chief said Sunday that elections would be held and a state of emergency lifted by August 2023, extending the military’s initial timeline given when it deposed Aung San Suu Kyi six months ago.
The country has been in turmoil since the army ousted the civilian leader in February, launching a bloody crackdown on dissent that has killed more than 900 people according to a local monitoring group.
A resurgent virus wave has also amplified havoc, with many hospitals empty of pro-democracy medical staff, and the World Bank has forecast the economy will contract by up to 18 percent.
In a televised address junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said “we will accomplish the provisions of the state of emergency by August 2023.”
“I pledge to hold multiparty elections without fail,” he added.
The general’s announcement would place Myanmar in the military’s grip for nearly two and a half years — instead of the initial one-year timeline the junta announced days after the coup.
The army has justified its power grab by alleging massive fraud during 2020 elections won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in a landslide, and has threatened to dissolve the party.
Last week it canceled the results of the polls, announcing it had uncovered over 11 million instances of voter fraud.
Suu Kyi has been detained since February 1 and faces an eclectic raft of charges — from flouting coronavirus restrictions to illegally importing walkie talkies — which could see her jailed for more than a decade.
Across Myanmar small groups of demonstrators marched Sunday, six months after soldiers launched their putsch with pre-dawn raids, ending a decade-long experiment with democracy.
Protesters in the northern town of Kale held banners reading “strength for the revolution” while demonstrators let off flares at a march in the commercial capital Yangon.
Tens of thousands of civil servants and other workers have either been sacked for joining rallies or are still on strike in support of a nationwide civil disobedience campaign.
The NLD saw their support increase in the 2020 vote compared to the previous election in 2015.
In a report on the 2020 polls, the Asian Network for Free Elections monitoring group said the elections were “by and large, representative of the will of the people.”


Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan
Updated 59 min 48 sec ago

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan

KANDAHAR: At least three rockets struck Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan overnight, an official told AFP on Sunday, as the Taliban pressed on with their sweeping offensive across the country.
“Last night three rockets were fired at the airport and two of them hit the runway... Due to this all flights from the airport have been canceled,” airport chief Massoud Pashtun told AFP.
Pashtun said work to repair the runway was underway and expected the airport to be operational later on Sunday.
An official at the civil aviation authority in Kabul confirmed the rocket attack.
The Taliban have for weeks launched withering assaults on the outskirts of Kandahar, stirring fears that the insurgents were on the verge of capturing the provincial capital.
Kandahar’s air base is vital to providing the logistics and air support needed to keep the militants from overrunning Afghanistan’s second-biggest city.
The attack on the airport came as the Taliban inched closer to overrunning two other provincial capitals — Herat in the west and Lashkar Gah in the south.
The Taliban’s significant territorial gains during the final stages of the US military withdrawal have largely been in sparsely populated rural areas.
But in recent weeks they have brought increasing pressure on several provincial capitals and seized key border crossings.
The capture of any major urban center would take their current offensive to another level and fuel concerns that the army is incapable of resisting the Taliban’s battlefield gains.
The government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban’s steady territorial gains over the summer as lacking strategic value.


US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path
Updated 01 August 2021

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path
  • Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, freeze parliament

WASHINGTON: US national security adviser Jake Sullivan urged Tunisia's president on Saturday to outline a swift return to the "democratic path" following his seizure of governing powers last Sunday, the White House said.
Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, freeze parliament and seize executive control in a move welcomed by street rallies but which his opponents branded a coup.
In a phone call, Sullivan underscored to Saied the need for "rapidly forming a new government, led by a capable prime minister to stabilize Tunisia’s economy and confront the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ensuring the timely return of the elected parliament," the White House National Security Council said in a statement.


US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
Updated 01 August 2021

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
  • Washington’s strategy to deploy the heavily armed planes a ‘worrying sign’

KABUL: A US B-52 bomber has pounded Taliban positions in Afghanistan’s western Herat province after the group gained ground near the area amid intense clashes with government forces, officials and lawmakers said on Saturday.

The strike took place on the outskirts of Herat city on Friday, with flights to and from the area suspended after increased violence near its airport.

“Unfortunately, all flights to Herat have been canceled due to the fighting and the information we have received suggest that a B-52 was used in the fighting yesterday (Friday) in Herat,” provincial lawmaker Habib Ur Rahman Pedram told Arab News.

No further details were given, such as the number of casualties or the scale of the attack.

Violence has surged across Afghanistan since May 1, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive as the US began its troop withdrawal after 20 years of occupation.

In recent weeks, the group has captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

The Taliban have reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

Friday’s attack by the US military marks the second time in less than two weeks that it has deployed the long-range, nuclear-capable plane against the Taliban from distant bases after US-led troops cut vital air support for overstretched Afghan forces.

A B-52 was also sighted in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of southern Helmand province, and the scene of intense fighting between Taliban and government forces, “but appeared to have not carried out any attack on Friday,” Helmand lawmaker Mirwais Khadem told Arab News.

According to security sources from the adjacent Kandahar province, the heavily armed plane hit a group of Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak bordering Pakistan two weeks ago as well, “killing scores of them.”

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid could not confirm whether the B-52 was used to attack the group across Afghanistan.

BACKGROUND

• In recent weeks, Taliban have captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

• The group has reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

But he told Arab News that the Taliban had “tightened the net on government forces around Herat city, in Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar city” in recent days.

Khadem confirmed Mujahid’s accounts, adding that the Taliban had taken over two districts within Lashkar Gah after “heavy fighting for successive days.”

“Government helicopters have hit the Taliban,” the lawmaker added. “People have been displaced and largely heading to Taliban-held areas as the situation in the city is not good.”

The US military in Afghanistan was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday, while Afghan officials refused to discuss the decision to reinstate the B-52 to curb Taliban advances.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told Arab News that “government forces had foiled Taliban’s attacks on the three cities and the enemy has suffered heavy losses.”

B-52 bombers played a crucial role in toppling the Taliban from power in late 2001, with the US using its bases in the Gulf to deploy the plane.

The strategy to deploy the B-52 appears to be a military necessity, as over-stretched Afghan troops are struggling to prevent the loss of more territory and provincial capitals to the Taliban and avoid the potential for renewed civil war without foreign forces to protect the Kabul government.

The clashes in Herat and Kandahar have forced tens of thousands of residents to flee to safer grounds, with government estimates placing the number of families displaced by the surge in violence since early May at more than 40,000.

During Friday’s fighting, the UN’s main compound in Herat came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, according to a statement from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

“This attack against the United Nations is deplorable, and we condemn it in the strongest terms,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.

The halt of flights to Herat and the reuse of the B-52 were “worrying signs of an escalation in insecurity” across Afghanistan, according to security analyst and retired colonel Mohammad Hassan.

“It is getting worse day by day here,” he told Arab News. “The cancelation of flights to Herat and the fact that America has back started using B-52 are not good signs. It will cause more panic among people at large and shows the precariousness of the situation.”


Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike
Updated 01 August 2021

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike
  • July has been the ‘deadliest month’ so far with more than 31,000 fatalities, compared to 7,913 deaths in June, official says

JAKARTA: Indonesia has detected three cases of the new ‘delta plus’ COVID-19 variant on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

The surge in infections has spread to provinces on the two islands and the Kalimantan region, or the Indonesian part of Borneo, from Bali and its most populous island of Java.

The Health Ministry’s director for prevention and control of direct communicable diseases, Siti Nadia Tarmizi, told Arab News on Saturday that the delta plus variant, or AY.1, was identified earlier this week as a result of local transmission in two patients in the Jambi province on Sumatra and Mamuju, a district of West Sulawesi province.

The delta plus variant B.1.617.2.1 or AY.1 is a sublineage of the highly contagious delta variant.

It has a renewed mutation in the virus’ spike protein and therefore, according to Tarmizi, is “just as infectious as the original delta variant.”

The findings in Jambi and Mamuju add Indonesia to a list of 10 countries — Japan, Nepal, Poland, the US, UK, Portugal, Switzerland, China, Russia and India — where the delta plus variant has been detected. It was first identified in India in April.

Amin Soebandrio, director of Jakarta-based Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology which found the delta plus variant from their whole genome sequencing tests, told Arab News they still can’t conclude whether the delta plus is more virulent.

“We do not have yet the data that supports the argument if it is more contagious. We are still sequencing the samples that were sent to us,” Soebandrio said.

Scientists said that Indonesia needed to step up its outbreak mitigation in response to the delta variant and “to detect the emergence of other new variants.”

“We need to increase our whole genome sequencing testing so that we are well aware of the variants that we have here and to mitigate them better,” public health professor Tjandra Yoga Aditama said in a statement on Saturday.

Indonesia’s government had predicted a spike in infections after the Eid al-Fitr break, despite the travel ban, citing a pattern seen during the holiday season.

However, authorities were caught off-guard with rising infections made worse by the delta variant.

There had been a rise in cases since early June, peaking on July 15, with 56,757 daily cases reported from less than 10,000 in mid-June.

Indonesia registered 37,284 new cases on Saturday, taking the total tally to 3,409,658 out of its population of 270,000 million, while its positivity rate has been consistent at about 25 percent in recent weeks.

The national caseload, mainly from infections in Java’s provinces, showed a decreasing trend after restrictions to movement were imposed on Java and Bali, which have now been added to other islands, since early June. Restrictions are expected to end on Monday.

“I see that the numbers in regions on Java Island are slowly decreasing, but now it is the other way around (on islands) outside of Java,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Friday.

The daily number of infections is still far from the 10,000 figure the government aims to achieve by imposing restrictions in Java and Bali, while the daily testing and vaccinations rate is far below the target as well.

The official death toll from COVID-19 increased to 94,119 after 1,808 new deaths were recorded on Saturday. The number of fatalities has risen consistently to more than 500 a day since early July, while the highest fatality count was recorded on July 27, with 2,067 deaths in a day.

Wiku Adisasmito, spokesman for the national COVID-19 task force, said: “July is the deadliest month during the pandemic in Indonesia,” with more than 31,000 deaths recorded throughout the month compared to 7,913 deaths in June.

Aditama, the former director of the World Health Organization’s Southeast Asia regional office, traced the high fatality count to the spike in cases.

“If infections in the community remain rampant, cases will continue to increase, and in proportion, deaths and cases with severe symptoms would also rise,” he said.