With coronavirus case counts climbing and vaccination efforts lagging in some African nations, regional officials of the World Health Organization issued a warning on Thursday against lax enforcement of public health measures to curb the pandemic on the continent.
Precautions like mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing have declined drastically in many countries as people become inured to the pandemic and government officials push for a return to normal life, Dr. Pamela Mitula, an epidemiologist and vaccine specialist with the W.H.O.’s regional office for Africa, said at a news conference. And many countries have eased Covid-19 policies in recent months, including fully reopening schools and universities, dropping mask mandates, permitting large election rallies and suspending test requirements for travelers arriving from abroad.
“On this apathy, what we would say is that countries should really be encouraged and reminded that the pandemic is far from over,” Dr. Mitula said. “They need to be vigilant.”
Africa has reported more than 12 million virus cases and 255,442 deaths from Covid-19 so far, according to the W.H.O., and both figures almost certainly understate the pandemic’s true toll.
The highly transmissible Omicron subvariants of the virus are driving a wave of infections across the continent, especially in North Africa, where new cases rose by 17 percent last week, according to Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the W.H.O. Africa regional director.
Dr. Moeti said she expected the upward trend in North Africa — concentrated so far in Morocco and Tunisia — to start to recede in the next few weeks, as happened recently in southern African nations like Namibia and Botswana, because of improved detection and response mechanisms.
But the potential for more virus surges, she said, should push countries to vaccinate more of their populations, particularly older residents, medical workers and those with underlying health conditions. As of July 10, just 21.1 percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion population was fully vaccinated, according to the W.H.O.
“This phase of the pandemic may well be characterized by relatively low incidence and much lower risk for hospitalization and death,” Dr. Moeti said, “but the Omicron variant remains highly transmissible.”