The Covid-19 infection rate in various parts of South Africa is on the rise as scientists work hard to understand the new Omicron variant — and the possibility of introducing mandatory vaccinations will be discussed by a government task team.
In a televised address on Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa, while urging South Africans to remain vigilant, said the national coronavirus command council had decided to keep the country at alert level one for now. This would be reviewed within a week.
As of 28 November more than 2 858 new Covid-19 cases were reported, with six deaths.
The rise in cases has been attributed to the new variant, Omicron, which was first detected in Botswana and subsequently identified by South African scientists who announced their findings on Thursday.
With an average of more than 1 600 new cases in the last seven days — a sharp rise from the previous average of only 500 new infections in a week — Ramaphosa said that should the current trajectory persist the country would enter a fourth wave.
“This should not come as a surprise. Epidemiologists and disease modellers have told us that we should expect a fourth wave of infections in early December,” he said.
“Scientists have also told us to expect the emergence of new variants. There are several concerns about the Omicron variant, and we are not sure how it will behave,” he added.
Ramaphosa said the variant, which can be easily identified with existing Covid-19 tests, did not warrant the panic witnessed since scientists announced their discovery.
Despite little knowledge about the behaviour of Omicron, there is currently enough knowledge on this new variant for South Africans to remain calm, he said.
“We now know that Omicron has far more mutations than any previous variant,” he said, adding that it is not directly related to the Delta or Beta variants.
To strengthen preventative measures and curb the rise in cases, the country’s vaccination drive will be intensified, with mandatory vaccination being one of the steps that will be considered.
“We have … been undertaking engagements with social partners and other stakeholders on introducing measures that make vaccination a condition for access to workplaces, public events, public transport and public establishments.
“Government has set up a task team that will undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations,” Ramaphosa said.
He went on to urge countries that had placed travel restrictions on South Africa to reconsider their “irrational and premature” decision because the country already had measures in place to control and curb the spread of the virus.
The UK became the first country to impose a travel ban on South Africa. Israel, the US, Japan, France, the Seychelles and countries in the European Union followed suit.
“There is no scientific justification for keeping these restrictions in place,” Ramaphosa said. “Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing economies to access and manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay.”