South Africa reels under omicron wave amid vaccine lag, pans ‘rushed’ travel ban

As the omicron variant sends a fourth wave of patients to hospitals across South Africa, leaders across the continent are pointing fingers at wealthy nations. Those countries, they say, could have helped prevent the latest variant had vaccines been distributed more equitably. And, as special correspondent Michael Baleke reports, related travel bans feel like punishment in many countries.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the Omicron variant sends a fourth wave of patients to hospitals across Southern Africa, leaders there and across the continent are pointing fingers at wealthy nations.

    Special correspondent Michael Baleke reports from Uganda.

  • Michael Baleke:

    It's approaching high season as the summer begins in the Southern Hemisphere. But tourist spots in Cape Town are abandoned. The hotels and restaurants are empty, as South Africa's hospitals begin to fill up, jammed with patients infected with both the Omicron and Delta coronavirus variants.

    Joe Phaahla is the minister of health for South Africa.

    Joe Phaahla, South African Minister of Health: The number of cases in the fourth wave have exceeded the peaks of the third, the second, and the first waves.

  • Michael Baleke:

    The Omicron variant was first detected in Southern Africa last month, and Africa accounts for nearly half of the Omicron cases reported across the globe.

    Africa CDC's director, John Nkengasong, says COVID-19 infections are surging on the continent, and research is under way to see if Omicron is fueling that surge. Latest figures from the World Health Organization show the African continent has reported close to 200,000 new cases in just the last week.

    Dr. John Nkengasong, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: If you now look at the different regions and say, where are a lot of cases are coming from, 79 percent of the cases are coming from Southern Africa.

  • Michael Baleke:

    The discovery of Omicron triggered a cascade of reaction, with many countries closing their borders to South Africans, and foreign tourists staying away.

    This sparked a wave of outrage, and cries of betrayal across Africa. Ugandan health care activist Sylvia Nakasi says the decision to call out South Africa was rushed.

  • Sylvia Nakasi, Health Care Activist:

    When you think back, you say, is it because it's an African country that has announced? Because other variants have been found in India and other countries, U.K., but we didn't hear that rushed decision to travel bans.

  • Michael Baleke:

    The tourist industry was set to rebound this holiday season after two years of the pandemic, and those who rely on tourists to make a living are worried about what's yet to come.

    Patson Makasa sells African art and fabric to tourists who come to Cape Town's world-famous beaches.

  • Patson Makasa, Beachfront Vendor (through translator):

    I can't survive without tourism. You know, here in Cape Town, it is a tourism industry.

  • Michael Baleke:

    Survival, whether economic or health-related, that's the concern for millions of people across the continent. Africa's attempts to fight the coronavirus have been undermined by the lack of vaccines, but also the slow uptake of the available doses due to hesitancy among the population.

    There are also distribution challenges, like the lack of cold storage facilities and poor road infrastructure, which has made it difficult to access communities in remote areas. While wealthy nations were buying up the lion's share of vaccines, African nations waited for months for the first vaccines to begin to trickle in.

    A mistrust of vaccines continues to haunt the continent, even in countries like Ghana that have enough vaccines to go around.

  • Adjovi Senamu, Vaccine Skeptic (through translator):

    I don't want to take the vaccine because I am scared I may suffer some side effects. I have not been infected with COVID-19, so I don't see the need to take the jab.

  • Gideon Sosu, Vaccine Skeptic:

    I think that the vaccine is very dangerous, which has serious effects when we get it injected in our system. And I don't believe I will get coronavirus.

  • Michael Baleke:

    In East Africa, Uganda has announced its first cases of Omicron. Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng says the government is ramping up efforts to get vaccines into communities.

    Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng, Ugandan Minister of Health: The more COVID-19 circulates among the communities, the more opportunities the virus has to change or mutate. It is therefore extremely important that we all work to reduce the circulation of COVID-19 virus to interrupt mutations.

  • Michael Baleke:

    Uganda has so far received more than 20 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines from the U.S., the U.K., Europe, and China. More than seven million of those doses have been administered to a population of about 47 million people.

    But in cities across Africa, like Uganda's capital, Kampala, business seems to go on as usual, in the way it did before the pandemic. People have given up on masks, and, in many places, there is virtually no social distancing, a clear sign that Africa's prospects for a full recovery any time soon are looking grimmer by the day.

    Just over 10 percent of people in Africa have received one dose of a vaccine, compared with more than 60 percent in North America and Europe. Africa believes it's bearing the brunt of panicked policies from the wealthy Western countries, which hoarded the vaccines.

    And Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis says they are making Southern Africa a COVID pariah.

    Geordin Hill-Lewis, Mayor of Cape Town, South Africa: The problem is that, it's now embarrassing for those governments to go back on what they have done.

    So, I think for political reasons, I am afraid, not for reasons of data or science, it is difficult for them to reverse those travel bans. So, we are expecting that it will take some time, but we are not letting them rest. We are working very hard. Our teams are speaking to those governments every day.

  • Michael Baleke:

    Ambassadors to Washington from 16 Southern African countries are calling on the White House to lift travel restrictions, claiming that the controls stigmatize Africa and devastate the tourism industry, pushing the hope of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic even farther out of reach for much of the African continent.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Michael Baleke in Kampala.

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