MEDICAL health expert and Mpilo Central Hospital acting chief executive officer Solwayo Ngwenya has warned of an imminent third wave of the COVID-19 virus. His statement comes after disturbing reports that more than 106 pupils contracted the respiratory virus last week soon after the Easter holidays.
Ngwenya bemoaned poor testing facilities in the country and relaxation of contact tracing measures, which were resulting in a high number of cases being detected. He told NewsDay (ND) senior reporter Miriam Mangwaya that people were increasingly becoming complacent and failing to follow prescribed safety regulations, hence government efforts to prevent the onset of the third wave could be in vain. Ngwenya (SN) predicted that the third wave was likely to have a more serious impact than the first and second waves, as people appear to have gotten used to the “beast”. Below are excerpts:
ND: People are wondering if the coronavirus pandemic would be over at some point. Do you think we are going to have a post-COVID-19 era?
SN: At the moment, talking about post-COVID-19 era is very far from the reality on the ground. As you are aware, the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week started new investigations about the origins of the virus. They haven’t found it yet. So we do not even know if there is going to be an era after the pandemic. Coronavirus could be here for a long time. And the fact that we are letting it spread, it will become endemic, that is, it is going to be widespread and will be common among us.
ND: Government is targeting to vaccinate 10 million people, that is, about 60% of the population. If we achieve herd immunity, can we go back to the normal way of life — not wearing masks, sanitising, social distancing and other health protocols?
SN: The ambitious target to vaccinate 60% of the population to achieve herd immunity is a very good thing to do, but we do not know if the virus will be mutant and turn out to be other variants.
Once the virus changes, the vaccines will become useless and we go back to square one, so that is why we are not probably going back to a life without masks for a very long time. Even after being vaccinated, we still need to mask up, practise social distancing and sanitise.
Achieving the 60% herd immunity itself is a mammoth task with a lot of logistical nightmares ahead. It is going to be achieved after a very long time because we have problems with securing vaccines, vaccine hesitancy from the population, misinformation and lack of information.
So this is a quagmire going forward. As I said earlier, as long as we allow the virus to spread we might need new vaccines and in future, revaccination.
ND: We are approaching winter amid the pandemic. Is the weather change likely to influence the rate of infections?
SN: As we approach winter, we are most likely going to see a spike in COVID-19 cases. Not because the low temperatures have an effect on the virus, but because a lot of people will be working in closed spaces to stay warm. Closed spaces are one of the super spreaders of the virus.
People are going to be working while overcrowded within closed windows, so there will be limited circulation of fresh air in rooms, which is against the WHO protocols.
This will apply in most public spaces including public transport, offices, and classrooms, which is going to spread the virus.
This winter, with relaxed lockdown measures and people being complacent, without practising social distancing and low temperatures, we are likely going to see a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases, not only in Zimbabwe, but in the whole southern African region.
ND: There have been various conspiracy theories about vaccines which have resulted in hesitancy in taking the jab among citizens. Briefly explain the efficacy of the vaccines and how the jab works in the human body for immunisation.
SN: The conspiracy theories greatly affected the uptake of the vaccine. For instance, people are afraid of changing their genetic structures after being vaccinated, which is not correct. Generally, new technology is being used in the manufacture of two vaccines whereby they take a real coronavirus and they inactivate it or kill it then put it in a solution, and they inject a person.
A human body now thinks that it is being infected by the virus, so it produces antibodies, thus your body becomes resistant to that type of virus. That is why you get two shots which keep boosting your immunity such that when the real virus comes, you already have the soldiers ready to fight that virus in your body.
That is how vaccines work basically in your body, hence it is very important for every eligible person to get vaccinated.
ND: WHO recently announced that African countries, Zimbabwe included, are ill-prepared for the third wave? What preparations do we need according to your own assessment of our local health system?
SN: WHO is very correct that African countries are not ready for the third wave because it is deadlier than the previous ones. Waves get bigger and more deadly as they come. WHO has already assessed the situation on the ground for the African countries and checked their healthcare facilities and noted that they are ill-equipped to tackle a full-blown third wave storm.
WHO is alerting us that with poorly-equipped health facilities, a large number of people will succumb to the virus. But the problem is that people do not want to listen, hence the complacency.
ND: What are the signs to mark the beginning of the third wave?
SN: A fresh COVID-19 wave manifests itself through a rapid surge in new cases. That is when a huge number of people start seeking hospitalisation and start looking for oxygen. We will go back to the trend of the second wave, where hospitals could not meet the demand from people in need of admission.
The third wave will not be seen, but it will manifest itself. But with too much complacency on following the COVID-19 regulations, which is happening right now, managing a fresh wave will be very difficult.
- Follow Miriam on Twitter @FloMangwaya