The upcoming winter season is expected to be one of the key tests of the pandemic’s progression in Botswana, two years after the virus set foot on local soils and overturned life as we have known it before. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports
Even as cases dip considerably below 10 per 100,000 as a countrywide average, no one is willing to make such emphatic and binding pronouncements. Recent history has treated any such optimism quite harshly.
And yet, it is human nature to seek out even the dimmest glint of hope in the midst of the doom and gloom. This human trait can be found in the Setswana idiom ‘se sa feleng se a bo se tlhola’, iterations of which are found in other languages throughout Southern Africa.
Even when COVID-19 broke out on March 30, 2020, many of us retained the hope that the virus would be a short-lived affair. Health authorities had been sounding warnings on the pandemic from February of that year, cautioning that an illness that seemed thousands of kilometres removed from Botswana, was drawing ever closer by the day.
On March 25, 2020, health authorities announced that an elderly woman who had travelled to South Africa had died in Ramotswa of suspected COVID-19. The hope that we had been enjoying gave way to denial, with the social media rumour mill grinding overtime as authorities took a few days to confirm her cause of death.
In a televised announcement on March 30, then health minister, Lemogang Kwape, told the nation that three cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the country, setting in motion an unprecedented nightmare that, two years and 2,683 deaths later, is ignoring the idiom we use to cope with times of distress.
Whatever our hopes were, they have been crushed underneath a new lexicon of strange terms such as lockdowns, probable cases, quarantine and isolation, social distancing, waves and variants. Previously unimaginable circumstances such as requiring a permit to go to the shops or an uncomfortable nose swab to cross the border have shaken our lives to such an extent that we have had no choice but to become accustomed to a ‘new normal’.
The events last winter, between June and July, represented the darkest period of our nightmare. Cases that winter peaked at a collective 69,711 with July being the worst month of the pandemic in terms of deaths at 573, from 219 in June and from an average of 184 in the five months before that.
Driven by the deadly Delta variant of COVID-19, the third wave that occurred over that winter, ebbed from August, before cases and deaths rose again in January, lifted by the Omicron variant.
Our hope or denial, however, has persisted, reinvigorated by the reduction in cases and deaths seen from February 2022 to date, despite authorities’ oft-repeated warnings.
Lower numbers of people are coming forward for vaccinations or boosters, particularly amongst those aged 18 to 30 years old, and with most restrictions lifted, many appear to either believe the pandemic is over, no longer a threat or that they can ‘ignore it away’.
This is despite explanations that the prevailing lower disease burden around the country is the result of a positive response to the vaccination campaign that started last March and that booster vaccination rates need to be kept up to avoid the emergence of variants or the spread of the disease.
In Kgatleng District, of the 44,875 people due for booster doses as at March 11, only 9,891 or 22% had done so. The same pattern can be found nationally, where the initial strong response to first and second doses has significantly weakened when it comes to boosters.
“We suspect that people believe Covid has gone down, that others aren’t getting sick and so why should they bother,” says health services acting director, Pamela Smith-Lawrence.
“They say they are working and don’t have the time to go and get boosters.
“When Covid was really bad, everyone was running after the vaccines, standing in queues for hours to protect their lives, but now that they feel protected, they say getting boosters would disturb their routines.”
While booster vaccination rates for the elderly are generally robust, the 18-to-30-year age range is particularly resistant. Part of the challenge, authorities suspect, is that people in this age range research heavily online and believe they have more knowledge about vaccines and their effectiveness than actual experts.
In addition, legitimate concerns about the side effects of booster shots have kept people away from the jabs.
“People are saying the after-effects are bad, amongst other excuses,” says Smith-Lawrence.
“We are going out to the people and educating them about these vaccines and the effects, as well as the importance of taking the boosters.
“We have had less than 100 adverse effects following immunisation since the campaign started last March.”
Authorities say most of the severe illnesses and deaths that were seen recently with COVID-19, have been amongst those either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. In fact, of the last three deaths confirmed, two were unvaccinated and one was partially vaccinated.
To make matters more urgent, the deadly Delta variant, which drove the winter crisis last year, has been picked in a few cases recently amongst the unvaccinated, raising the threat that its numbers could grow.
This week, experts in South Africa said the next wave in that country was expected to be driven by Deltacron, a mixture of the Omicron and Delta variants, which is also pushing cases worldwide. Deltacron is already in South Africa and virologists expect the wave to peak in April or May.
With part of the stockpile of three million doses due to start expiring next month and the winter season due to set in, local authorities are concerned. Covid cases have ticked up in the northern hemisphere, which is at the tail-end of its winter season. During the colder season, people sit in closed rooms more frequently, which is a breeding ground for transmission of COVID-19, particularly the more aggressive strains currently circulating such as the mutations of the original Omicron variant.
Locally, for those hoping or wishing the pandemic over, winter is the key period to watch for.
“We are going into a period of uncertainty and in June, July and August 2021, we lost a lot of people,” says health ministry deputy permanent secretary, Tshepo Machacha.
“We have experience with vaccines and we know that they protect us.
“I’m pleading with those sitting on the fence to please go and get vaccinated.”
The nightmare that started on March 30, 2020, continues.