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Devastating Human Toll as the Delta COVID Variant Takes Hold in Africa

The surge in the Delta coronavirus variant in Africa is set to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in the coming months absent a dramatic scaling up of preventative measures and COVID vaccine access.

While parts of the world have seemingly begun to turn the page on the pandemic, COVID’s third wave is the headline story across Africa. There has been a near tripling in the number of COVID cases and 30,000 fatalities on the continent since the end of April when the Delta variant emerged in Uganda.

Panic and fear are taking hold in many communities as the number of people losing family and friends rises exponentially.

A Third Wave as the Delta Variant Becomes Dominant

  • 26 African countries have seen their confirmed COVID-19 case numbers jump by approximately 50 percent or more in June compared to May.
  • 17 of these 26 countries have confirmed cases of the Delta COVID variant that drove India’s deadly surge.
  • The Delta variant, now confirmed in 22 African countries, has been found to spread 225 percent faster than the original virus.
  • 5,600 people across Africa have died from COVID in the first week of July. This represents a 43 percent increase from the previous week. Actual rates are likely even higher given that many of the affected countries have positive test rates near or above 15 percent.

The India Scenario Looms

  • Africa’s rolling daily COVID cases per population have tripled in one month from 0.9 cases per 100,000 people to 2.8. This mirrors the month prior to India’s devastating surge. From February 18 to March 18, India’s cases per 100,000 people rose from 0.9 to 2.3. Over the next month it spiked to 13.5 before peaking at 30 another month later.
  • India and Africa have similar total populations (1.36 and 1.37 billion, respectively). At the outset of India’s surge, driven by the Delta variant, the country had tallied 160,000 official COVID-19 deaths. Over the next several months, India registered over 240,000 more fatalities. Currently, Africa has nearly 150,000 confirmed COVID deaths. If the Delta variant continues to spread, a catastrophic scenario in which the continent suffers hundreds of thousands of fatalities is possible.

  • Africa’s current COVID fatality case rate is 2.58 percent versus India’s 1.32 percent.
  • Experts estimate the actual number of COVID fatalities in India is over 1 million. Africa’s fatalities are thought to be similarly underestimated—South Africa has officially registered 63,000 deaths, but the actual number may be more than 170,000.
  • Several countries where the Delta variant is present, including South Africa, Tunisia, and Namibia, already have seen their fatalities per capita spike to levels higher than anything India experienced.

Prevention and Containment Must Continue to Be the Priority

  • India’s trajectory of the Delta variant is not destiny. Social distancing, mask wearing, avoiding mass gatherings, and communicating these steps with friends and family are tools that Africans can continue to use to curb the rise of cases until, and even after, vaccine access can be scaled up.
  • International actors need to ramp up efforts to increase vaccine access in Africa to help avert a humanitarian calamity. Currently, less than 4 percent of Africans are vaccinated, far lower than any other continent.
  • African governments can employ means like public messaging, strategic curfews, and stay-at-home plans to slow the virus’s spread. Strengthening public trust between governments and citizens is invaluable to gaining cooperation and resilience.
  • As has been recognized from the outset of the pandemic, Africa does not have the hospital infrastructure to rely on widespread therapeutic interventions. Prevention, relying on established public health principles, remains the indispensable priority. Such measures, which build on community health workers, prior experience, and local knowledge in fighting pandemics, has helped African countries through the first and second waves. They will be even more critical during the third.

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