Global Rise in COVID-19 Cases Prompts African Leaders to Call for Caution
Governments around the world are loosening pandemic-related safety precautions as they report declining COVID-19 infections. But the World Health Organization is warning: Not so fast.
The WHO is urging governments to remain vigilant against the pandemic as the BA.2 strain of the omicron variant continues to spread.
The biggest wave of outbreaks has been across Asia; however a decline in testing worldwide means public health experts have a limited understanding of exactly where the virus is infecting people.
“Which means the cases we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg,” WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a recent briefing.
WHO expects local outbreaks of COVID-19 to continue, especially in areas where restrictions have been lifted and population immunity is low, Tedros said.
Across Africa, COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply. By mid-March, cases were down 25% from the previous month and deaths were down 39%, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite that, the WHO Africa regional office and the Africa CDC have said they expect another wave of infections to sweep the continent in the coming month. That could begin as soon as late April, based on the pattern the virus has established since the pandemic began more than two years ago.
“COVID-19 will be with us for the long term,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, director of the WHO Africa regional office. “Consistent implementation of a broad range of strategies is what will ultimately reduce the spread of the virus.”
Nine countries are still experiencing a fifth wave of infections. The rapidly spreading BA.2 strain of omicron has appeared in 15 African countries.
“We are not yet out of the woods, for sure,” Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong said recently. “Let’s not be deluded that because we’ve seen a low transmission season, which we must celebrate, that we think the pandemic is over.”
Testing and sequencing remain crucial to keep COVID-19 in check while countries lift restrictions and recover from the economic damage it has caused.
However, testing has dropped significantly as infections have waned, falling 26% in mid-March, according to the Africa CDC. WHO Africa reports that the number of countries conducting comprehensive COVID-19 surveillance had dropped from 23 in March 2020 to 13 in March 2022.
“At any moment, you can see a rebound of the virus,” Nkengasong said. “It only takes one or two cases to restart an infection cycle.”
Nkengasong said the Regional Integrated Surveillance and Laboratory Network in West Africa will improve the continent’s ability to track changes in the virus and alert nations to potentially harmful new variants. Through the network, the Africa CDC will coordinate the work of laboratories in Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal.
Nkengasong said governments are doing the right thing by reducing restrictions, but he urges people to take responsibility for their own safety based on their situation.
In open spaces, such as on the street, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low and precautions such as masks are less important, he said. In enclosed spaces, more caution is warranted.
“It makes public health sense that when you’re in a tight space, you make sure that you put on your mask,” he added.