SOUTH AFRICA – South Africa is witnessing the fourth wave of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, its health minister Joe Phaahla has said in a statement, days after the Omicron widget was detected in the country.

He added that the situation this time was much more concerning. “There is a much steeper upward curve than has ever been seen in the last three waves,” Phaahla said.

He appreciated the country’s Genomic and Surveillance Network for detecting and reporting Omicron.

However, he criticized the travel bans imposed on South Africa and the neighboring countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

These include Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, the Seychelles and Zambia

Travel restrictions have also been imposed on Ethiopia in east Africa and Nigeria in the western part of the continent.

Doyin Odubanjo, a leading public health expert, said in an interview that such travel bans were of little value. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa too criticised the bans imposed on the African nations and said that they were “unscientific”.

The bans undermined international cooperation and solidarity in the common fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramaphosa said.

He added that South African epidemiologist Salim Abdul Karim had already warned about mutations, which could be more transmissible but less severe.

The number of daily new cases of COVID-19 in South Africa has increased by nearly 13-fold between November 24 and December 4.  This is a steep 1,184 per cent increase in 10-days.

The number of new cases per day moved up to 16,366 new cases per day December 4, from a total of 1,275 new cases per day November 24.

Gauteng was the province where Omicron was originally detected. However, it has now been reported from all nine provinces. Of them, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga had high positivity rates, the health minister said.

Gauteng accounted for over 32 per cent of the 3,020,569 COVID-19 cases as of December 4 in the country, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

Each of the two provinces—KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape—recorded 17.3 per cent of the total COVID-19 infection.

Phaahla said while the new variant had infected vaccinated people, it had led to just mild illness.  Most of those admitted to hospitals were unvaccinated or young people below 40 years, most of whom were not vaccinated.

Just 36.8 percent of South Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, according to Phaahla. All adults and all children aged 12 years and above are eligible for vaccination.

But, some 63 per cent of the population is yet to be fully vaccinated. The minister urged everyone to get vaccinated.

He called for more vigilance, along with health and safety measures, including wearing of masks, hand washing and sanitizing, physical distancing, avoiding crowds and good ventilation to be prioritized.

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