Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

South Africa considers vaccine mandates as omicron cases spiral


A healthcare worker conducts a PCR Covid-19 test at the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg on November 30, 2021.

Emmanuel Croset | AFP | Getty Images

After becoming the first country to identify the new omicron Covid-19 variant, South Africa is bracing for a fourth wave of infections and vaccine mandates are being considered by the government.

South African scientists last week detected the heavily-mutated variant, since designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, which has now been identified in at least 24 countries around the world. Dutch authorities say omicron was already present in the Netherlands prior to South Africa reporting it to the WHO, prompting questions over how widely the variant could have already spread.

Omicron is rapidly becoming the dominant variant on South Africa, with the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases saying it is seeing an “exponential increase in infections,” with 74% of virus genomes sequenced in the last month belonging to the new variant.

Cases increased from a weekly average of 300 two weeks ago to 1,000 per day last week. On Wednesday, the country recorded 8,561 cases.

In a televised address on Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said epidemiologists and disease modelers were warning that South Africa should expect a fourth wave of Covid-19 in early December, with the variant now found in all of the country’s provinces.

Ramaphosa noted that more than 25 million vaccine doses have been administered since May, with around 36% of adults now fully vaccinated. However, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the daily vaccination rate had fallen below 130,000 last week, well shy of the government’s 300,000 per day inoculation target.

‘Travel apartheid’

Ramaphosa has lambasted wealthy nations for their failure to ensure equal access to vaccines, and criticized the numerous countries that immediately banned travel from South Africa and neighboring countries following the announcement of the new variant. The president said such bans were unjustified and “unfairly discriminate against our country and our Southern African sister countries.”

Daily Covid-19 cases in South Africa spike as omicron becomes the dominant variant in the country.

CNBC Graphics

His comments have since been echoed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who accused countries imposing travel bans on the region of “travel apartheid.”

“What is unacceptable is to have one part of the world, that is one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy, condemned to a lockout when they were the ones that revealed the existence of a new variant that, by the way, already existed in other parts of the world, including in Europe,” Guterres said on Wednesday.

Vaccine mandates?

Domestic vaccine hesitancy is also a contributing factor in the slowdown in South Africa. In order to ramp up the vaccination rate, Ramaphosa announced that a task team has been established to “undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations.”

Yet no time frame has been given for when this task team will report back to the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Vaccination, which will then make recommendations to the cabinet.

In a note to investors Monday, Oxford Economics Africa Senior Political Analyst Louw Nel and Economist Jee-A van der Linde said there is too little sign of urgency from the government in dealing with the thorny question of vaccine mandates.

“The issue was side-stepped ahead of the November 1 local government elections (LGEs) but can no longer be avoided as vaccine rates remain well below the levels required for the country to achieve population immunity,” they noted.

“The establishment of a task team is very much true to form for Mr Ramaphosa whose predilection for consultation and consensus-seeking is well-documented, but it does not suggest that the government is ready to abandon the carrot in favour of the stick.”

Activity rebounding

Ramaphosa has so far avoided implementing new social restrictions, keeping the country on level one alert, meaning public gatherings are restricted to 750 people indoors and 2,000 outdoors, while a curfew remains in place between midnight and 4am. Although the government has vowed to monitor infections and hospitalization rates closely, expectations are that any renewed measures would not be as severe as those introduced in December 2020, when the delta variant fueled a second wave of infections.

The South African economy is expected to have contracted in the third quarter, and increased restrictions could weigh further on economic activity in the fourth. However, Oxford Economics said depending on the severity of the fourth wave, the economy could start 2022 on a “much safer footing than previously thought.”

The country’s PMI (purchasing managers’ index) readings rebounded strongly in November, increasing to 57.2 points from 53.6 in October, with manufacturing activity surging.

However, economists are concerned that the otherwise strong fourth quarter could be under threat as omicron spreads like wildfire across South Africa.

“After dragging on growth over the past two quarters, the latest reading suggests that the manufacturing sector was in a much better shape to support headline growth in Q4 before the emergence of a new virus wave,” said Virag Forizs, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.

“Officials will probably try to avoid imposing economically damaging containment measures, but the risk of such restrictions will linger over the recovery in the manufacturing sector and beyond.”