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South Africa is seeing a 4th surge of COVID-19 that's being driven by omicron


South Africa is now firmly in the grips of a fourth wave of COVID-19 that's being driven by the omicron variant. Every major city is seeing a rise in cases, and scientists say this is unprecedented. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Cape Town, South Africa. He joins us now.

Hey, Eyder.


KELLY: Tell me more about this fourth wave.

PERALTA: So look, if you look at the curve right now, it shows a super steep spike in cases. And in terms of numbers, on November 16, the seven-day moving average of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases was 332. That number is now 4,800. And scientists here are saying that that is unprecedented, that this is a much faster acceleration than we have seen in the previous three waves. And this is happening across the country, in every province, in every major city. And scientists here say that it is being driven by the omicron variant.

KELLY: Do all of these new cases mean that there is more data? Are we learning more about the omicron variant?

PERALTA: So it's early days, so we know very little. But we do know that this is a highly infectious variant. And a new paper that was just released that has not been peer reviewed shows that the variant is doing a good job at infecting people who have had COVID in the past. But the health minister here, Dr. Joe Phaahla, had some good news, that hospitalizations are rising but not at a huge level. Let's listen.

JOE PHAAHLA: The infections are causing mostly mild illness, with hospital admissions mainly dominated by those who are not vaccinated and young people below the age of 40, most of whom are not vaccinated.

PERALTA: So he made a point to say that the best way to fight this thing is to get vaccinated.

KELLY: But hang on, can I circle back to something we just heard him say? Did he just say young people below the age of 40 are dominating hospital admissions? That seems very different from what we've seen in past waves.

PERALTA: Yeah, and this started differently, too. I mean, it started spreading among young people, and health authorities here are looking closely at the demographics of hospitalizations. They found that in Gauteng province, kids below the age of 2 are being hospitalized at much higher levels than in previous waves. But they don't know why. Does it mean that kids are more susceptible to this virus? Or are doctors admitting healthy kids because they have enough beds? And, you know, we will get answers to these questions, but we don't have them yet.

KELLY: I'm sure South Africa would rather not be making international headlines for being at the forefront of this. How are people there holding up? How are they reacting?

PERALTA: I mean, look, so something funny - every time that a COVID wave picks up steam here, the government bans the sale of alcohol. And they do that basically because drunk people create problems, and they end up at the hospital. So if you ban alcohol, you clear ER beds for COVID patients. So when this new variant was announced, the first thing everyone did was joke that they were headed to the liquor store to stock up (laughter). And actually, there was a line here at liquor stores. But look, this is serious. We're headed into summer here, and everyone was looking forward to what was supposed to be the first normal summer in two years. And South Africa has had the most deaths of any sub-Saharan African country.

It's a country whose economy was already suffering before this pandemic. So the hope was palpable. People thought they would get back to work, that tourists would come back, that lockdowns would be a thing of the past. And here we are, staring at a future that looks a lot like the past two years. South Africa is once again on red lists, ostracized from the rest of the world. And South Africans I've talked to just in my regular life are just sick of all of this, and some can't even fathom. They can't imagine how they're going to survive economically another COVID wave.

KELLY: Wow. Yeah. I know a lot of people who hear that and sympathize.

NPR's Eyder Peralta in Cape Town, thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.