EDITORIAL COMMENT: Omicron variant needs compliance, not panic

29 Nov, 2021 - 00:11 0 Views
EDITORIAL COMMENT: Omicron variant needs compliance, not panic

The Herald

The identification of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in Southern Africa is cause for concern and a signal to maintain and enforce the public health measures that allowed us to fight the last three waves of infection plus motivate everyone unvaccinated to stand in the lines, but is not a reason to panic.

As has been continually stressed by public health experts, both here and in other countries, fighting Covid-19 waves of infection requires both very high levels of vaccination and a universal adherence to the measures that we know work: masking in public, social distancing, sanitising and temperature checks on admission to workplaces and public gatherings.

These measures, plus tight screening of legal travellers at borders, allowed to Zimbabwe to beat back the previous waves.

Zimbabweans have become a bit slack over those public health measures, despite the continuous and daily advice from our health experts. While a fair number of people accept the advice and mask up and stand back, far too many wear their masks round their necks and seem to feel they must be a couple of centimetres from the person in front of them in a queue or to talk to. And the illegal border crossers still create serious health risks while they dodge customs duties.

The Government, and President Mnangagwa in his fortnightly extensions of the lockdown, have been very careful not to relax on the basic four measures, as well as continuing to encourage people to work from home where possible.

Even where there has been some relaxation for the fully vaccinated only, such as being allowed to eat in restaurants and drink in bars, seating is still supposed to be spread out and business managers are supposed to ask to see the vaccination cards.

Compliance has been lax and obviously we now need to tighten up. The regulations are still in place so there is also need to push the required levels of enforcement.

Vaccination is very important, and vaccination levels need to be very high as Europe presently shows as it fights its fourth and worst wave of Covid-19.

Again the Government, on the advice of its public health experts, has done far more than most developing countries to buy vaccines, distribute vaccines and set up a reasonable distribution programme. Anyone who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated.

But by Saturday only 3 764 538 Zimbabweans had bothered to get their first shot and only 2 795 050 both shots. Statistically this is 25,10 percent of the total population who have at least one shot, and 40,10 percent of those aged 16 and over with that first shot.

We passed the 25 percent and 40 percent milestones on Friday. But if Zimbabweans had been queuing in the numbers we are queuing during the last half of August we would have over 60 percent of the adult population with at least one shot and around half fully vaccinated.

Even when people have entered the programme they need to be willing to go back four weeks later, but only 29,77 percent of our 16s and over now have had both shots. In the month between October 28 and Saturday we saw 480 000 first jabs, yet the gap between those with one jab and those with two is around twice that, so almost 500 000 people did not go back when they were supposed to.

There is no real excuse not to get vaccinated. We have used only about 6,6 million doses, so even with inevitable wastage there are large stocks of vaccine in Zimbabwe and plenty of places where the jabs are given.

The Zimbabwean problem is not shortages of vaccine or shortages of staff for the vaccination teams, but shortage of people ready to stand in line. Many European countries, faced with the fourth wave, are tightening up on vaccination mandates and are moving to the position that the unvaccinated will not be allowed to go to work, use public transport or even shop.

Our Government has done this for its own staff, and some private employers have done the same, but obviously more need to join. We have compulsory vaccination for childhood illnesses without fuss so adding an adult illness does not seem difficult. There have been fears that “some” vaccines “might” not be fully effective against the Omicron variant, with experts being careful to continue urging universal vaccination. No scientifically acceptable data is yet available on whether one or two vaccines might be less effective.

Several factors need to be borne in mind. For a start about half the Omicron mutations have already appeared on the previous four variants of concern listed by the WHO: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

Secondly Zimbabwe largely uses Sinovac and Sinopharm, both inert vaccines that include the whole protein coat of the original Covid-19, that is all the spikes; so our antibodies still have plenty of spikes they can latch onto and kill the virus.

The live vaccines common in some parts of the world use a different system; they start with a harmless virus, code in some Covid genetic material and then infect the vaccinated person so antibodies are produced.

If the far smaller group of spikes the antibodies are attuned to have largely changed there could be a challenge.

Vaccination does not necessarily prevent infection, although it helps to do so. The biggest benefit is that it slashes the severity, meaning even when a vaccinated person is infected there might be no symptoms or far milder symptoms.

Around the world a huge majority of those in hospital and those who get so sick that they die are the unvaccinated, and that is what those who will not spend a few hours in a queue need to remember. And if they are not coughing and sneezing they are less likely to infect someone else.

Evidence from South Africa from reputable physicians suggests that the Omicron variant is highly unlikely to be more lethal, although the jury is still out on whether it is more or less infectious.

The chair of the South African Medical Association, Dr Angelique Coetzee, who runs a private practice and was one of the first to raise the alarm, has treated a block of patients whose symptoms are severe fatigue but whose general level of illness is otherwise fairly mild.

Many Zimbabweans and indeed many in Southern Africa are somewhat peeved about the knee-jerk reaction of many countries to try and isolate Southern Africa and, as a growing number of countries outside the region report the virus, are even trying to isolate each other. As the medical teams in South Africa and Botswana, who first identified the variant and then immediately published the results have noted, this appears to discriminate against those who do their job properly.

In some ways it is understandable, especially if you are already overwhelmed with a bad forth wave of Covid-19, but the usual xenophobes will be playing blame games instead of boosting efforts to get the whole world fully vaccinated. Since Africa has the lowest vaccination rates it has already been pointed out by the intelligent that a global effort to vaccinate Africa is required since “no one is safe until we are all safe”.

The response of the Zimbabwean medical experts was the smart one: intensify vaccination drives and target the most likely potential sources of infection, and press for universal compliance with what are, after all, still the legally-enforceable lockdown measures to minimise infection in the first place. We all need to co-operate, willingly and fully.

Share This:

Sponsored Links