Omicron: Why South Africans are keeping calm and carrying on amid new coronavirus variant

PHOTO: Reuters file

While countries around the world have responded to the emergence of the Omicron variant with stringent lockdowns and travel bans, in the country where it was first identified, things are largely business as usual.

During a previous coronavirus outbreak, in March 2020, this country at the southern tip of Africa had instituted one of the strictest lockdowns in the world: Its level five measures mandated no exercise, no shopping (except at supermarkets), no school, a 7pm-5am curfew, no alcohol or cigarette sales and permits for essential workers.

This lasted 35 days. The aim was to stop the hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients.

Yet now, despite being the alleged Ground Zero for a new variant that is widely suspected to be more transmissible, many of those restrictions are a thing of the past.

Today, the country is on lockdown level one (the lowest tier) and there are few signs of that changing any time soon. Level one entails a curfew from midnight to 4am, and the closing time for all establishments and gathering places is 11pm.

Face masks must be worn in public and social distancing must be maintained. Outdoor sports events are limited to 2,000 spectators, and only 100 mourners may attend an indoor funeral service.

The big question is this: Is South Africa being reckless, or is the country a good example of how to live in a post-pandemic future?

Omicron's impact can hardly be doubted. On Nov 27, the number of daily new Covid-19 infections in South Africa was 3,220. By Dec 3, this had risen to 16,055, according to the Department of Health.

That is in a country where more than 90,000 people have died from the virus already, and only 25 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated (while that figure may pale beside much of the world, it is actually quite high for Africa; the continent as a whole has a vaccination rate of only eight per cent).

Yet despite those grim figures, many ordinary South Africans - encouraged by their government - are taking things in their stride.

"This new variant, it seems, is more transmissible, but our hospital admissions are not increasing at an alarming rate, and it is for that reason that I say we should not panic," President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Dec 4.

Business as usual 

These days Access Park shopping mall in Kenilworth, Cape Town, is crowded with people doing their Christmas shopping, and traffic jams at the entrance appear to be back to pre-pandemic levels, despite the Omicron-fuelled fourth wave.

Everyone is masked, though, including shoppers, the odd beggar and the car guards - evidence that the new variant hasn't entirely escaped people's minds.

Three weeks ago, with daily new infections at a countrywide low of 262 on Nov 14, it was not at all strange to see people going about the streets without masks, despite it being illegal not to wear one in public. Many stores, including the Food Lovers Market, clearly state "No mask, no entry".

"I am not scared like I was in last year's lockdown," said Sharon Kockott, 56, a Capetonian and a freelance caterer.

"Then we all stayed home for weeks. I've been fully vaccinated, and I don't think this new variant is as dangerous as some people think," she said, before taking her trolley and heading for the sanitiser station at the store entrance.

Been there, done that? 

Such attitudes may be partly explained by the country's relatively high immunity levels.

Fifty-nine per cent of urban community adults between the ages of 35 and 59 had antibodies to the virus after the second wave ended in March, according to a study published by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. (A third wave lasted from May to October).

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This is not surprising in a country of great economic inequality, where roughly a fifth of the population lives in often crowded informal urban settlements or traditional dwellings. Social distancing is close to impossible, and experts agree that cases are vastly under-reported.

"I share a two-roomed wooden house with three people," said Lulama Nobokwana, 46, from Philippi township on the Cape Flats, as she waited for her second jab at the Braude Pharmacy behind the taxi rank in Athlone. She didn't have an appointment but joined the queue on her way home from her cleaning job.

There is a heavy metal grid over the windows of the pharmacy and in the street plastic bags and styrofoam food containers are blown about by the Southeaster.

A stray dog is investigating the contents of a black rubbish bag. But inside the pharmacy is clean, well-stocked and the service is prompt.

Following the emergence of Omicron, countries around the world have rushed to institute entry bans on travellers from South Africa, along with those from several of its neighbours.

Among the places that have issued bans are the United Kingdom, the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, India, Australia, Thailand, Germany and the Netherlands.

Too lax or unfairly maligned?

Most South Africans are all too aware that, along with the travel bans, their country has come in for criticism in the overseas media for perceptions that it did not act fast enough in response to the new variant.

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But epidemiologists say the criticisms are not valid.

"South Africa, because of its past experience with HIV and TB, has very advanced surveillance systems for keeping track of variants. This helped to identify the Omicron variant fast, for which [the country] is now being punished by the rest of the world," said Dr Jo Barnes, an epidemiologist at the Stellenbosch University Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Indeed, Barnes said there was evidence that the Omicron did not originate in the country, as has been widely reported.

"South African scientists detected the new variant, but it has now been retrospectively identified in older samples in a number of places. Declaring the country a pariah and instituting travel bans was a knee-jerk reaction, and a singularly unproductive and unwise move," Barnes said.

Other places the variant has been retrospectively identified include the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

Dealing with the spread of a new pathogen that keeps on changing would always be "a hit and miss affair," Barnes said.

"The country has to weigh up the real success of control measures versus the economic damage such measures could do, so South Africa is simply doing what it can under the circumstances to cope with the situation."

Added Barnes: "The way South Africa has been treated for identifying the virus is problematic, as it might, in future, encourage other countries to keep quiet if they discover new variants within their borders."

A state of mind

There is also a sense that while South Africans are largely keeping calm and carrying on, this attitude is better seen as stoicism, rather than indifference.

"I was so scared last week when I wasn't feeling well," said Fadia Samuels, a hair salon owner from Observatory queuing for her second jab at the Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital in Mitchell's Plain.

"I wondered whether it could be this new variant, but the test came back negative."

Like Samuels, most South Africans are all too aware of the fatal threat posed by Covid-19, it is just that in a country that also deals with high levels of HIV infections, poverty and violent crime, the risks posed by the pandemic must be seen in perspective.

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The Lentegeur is a no-frills state hospital with a brick-paved courtyard in a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. The chairs are plastic, the queue is long, but the banter is cheerful.

"Here the staff are so friendly, full of jokes, and they have made me feel so comfortable," Samuels said. "I feel so happy today, because I even managed to persuade two anti-vaxxers in my building that it's time to get the injection. Why take a chance with this new variant?"

Back at the pharmacy in Athlone, Nobokwana admitted to being "scared of the new variant".

"But by later today I, and almost all the people around me will have been vaccinated. And it looks now as if [even those people who contract Covid-19] are not landing up in hospital like they did last time. So I should be OK."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.