On 8 May, South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that the presence of two additional Covid-19 variants had been discovered in the country. These are the B.1.1.7 variant which was first detected in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2020 and the B.1.617.2 variant which is currently driving the uncontrolled outbreak of Covid-19 in India.
This discovery follows recent warnings by experts at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) who, on 05 May, expressed concern about the threat posed by emergent Covid-19 variants to the Southern African region. KRISP is among the world’s leading genetic sequencing institutes and led the way in identifying new Covid-19 variants in 2020, including identifying the 501Y.v2 variant which has become the dominant strain throughout Southern Africa.
The emergence of new strains is of particular concern as mutated variants, such as 501Y.v2 and B.1.617.2 can be more virulent, deadly, and potentially even resistant to treatments and vaccines. Southern Africa is at particular risk from such variants given its higher exposure to international trade and travel, porous regional borders, weak border security, poor healthcare infrastructure, and the slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines.
Official statistics suggest that South Africa remains the worst affected country in the region with 1 597 724 confirmed coronavirus cases as of 10 May. In addition, South African officials have also recorded 54 825 confirmed coronavirus related fatalities. Further, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) believes that the fatality rate could be significantly higher as it has recorded over 157 000 excess deaths since May 2020. This means that the death toll could be as much as three times the official figure. This is a major concern given that South Africa has arguably the most advanced tracking and tracing capacity in the region. As such, if South African officials have undercounted Covid-19 deaths so dramatically, similar undercounting is likely throughout the region, especially in resource-constrained states bordering South Africa such as Mozambique, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and eSwatini, as well as those which have largely failed to address the pandemic at all such as Tanzania and Madagascar.
This lack of resources and the interconnectedness of the South African Development Community (SADC) region has increased dependence on preventative measures as the best means of addressing the pandemic. This highlights the regional security threat posed by Tanzania’s failure to acknowledge or combat the coronavirus pandemic for almost a full year. It was only after the suspected Covid-19 death of the late president John Magufuli that the Tanzanian government started implementing measures such as testing, social distancing, and travel restrictions. However, in many ways, the damage was already done. Hundreds if not thousands of Tanzanians are believed to have died from Covid-19 (due to the state’s refusal to acknowledge the pandemic accurate statistics were not recorded) and a new Covid-19 variant mutated and emerged out of the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus there. This new variant has already been detected in Angola and it is unclear in how many other SADC countries it is spreading.
Similarly, concerns about the further spread of the more virulent B.1.617 variant currently driving the pandemic in India to Southern Africa are elevated. Southern and Eastern Africa have strong trade and travel ties with India driven by shared historical links and a large Indian diaspora. The recently identified cases of B.1.617.2 were isolated to individuals who had recently travelled to India; however, should the B.1.617 variant take root in a Southern African state it will likely spread rapidly across the region. The experience of the 501Y.v2 variant underscores the region’s vulnerability and regional governments’ limited capacity to stop (informal) cross-border trade and travel.
Unfortunately, the rollout of vaccine programmes in Southern Africa has been exceeding slow. The lone semi-success story has been Botswana which has already vaccinated 3% of the population and has secured sufficient vaccine doses to vaccinate the entire adult population.
South Africa, despite its comparative economic strength, has had a sluggish vaccine rollout defined by delays. The majority of countries in the region have vaccinated less than 2% of viable candidates with only Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Eswatini exceeding this figure.
The slow vaccine rollout and the ongoing threat of further waves of infections driven by new variants will continue to affect the regional economy negatively. This is especially due to the impact the pandemic has had on tourism which has been worsened by travel restrictions. The tourism industry is unlikely to recover until the pandemic has passed or a critical level of vaccinations has taken place. In an effort to address this, Zimbabwe has taken the innovative approach of prioritising the town of Victoria Falls in its vaccine rollout. The country is hoping that by fully vaccinating the popular tourist and resort town it can coax tourists back to the famous destination.
As long as the pace of vaccinations remains as slow as it is, the regional economy is unlikely to recover in 2021. This prolonged period of slow economic activity will have long-term knock-on effects on Southern Africa. This will likely be worsened by anticipated future waves of Covid-19 infections driven by new variants and the regional governments’ limited ability to enforce preventative measures.