The overcast, drizzly skies match the somber mood at the Tshwane University of Technology, a hot spot in South Africa’s latest surge of COVID-19 cases, apparently driven by the new omicron variant that is leading countries around the world to impose new restrictions.
After several students tested positive, the university postponed some exams, and officials in the larger metropolitan area of Tshwane, which includes the capital of Pretoria, are pushing vaccinations, especially among younger adults who have been slow to get the shots.
At TUT, as the university is known, few students wanted to speak about the new variant that has cast a pall. Many were not vaccinated — only 22% of 18- to 34-year-olds in South Africa are — and some seemed to be rethinking that, though notably the university’s vaccination center was closed for the weekend.
Manqoba Zitha, a student who has gotten the shot, said he will be pushing fellow classmates to do the same.
“I’m trying to encourage them so that they can vaccinate, so they can stay away from coronavirus because it’s there, it’s killing people, and now numbers are rising,” said Zitha. “Now when we are watching TV we can see that people are getting coronavirus. So they must vaccinate!”
Nearly two years into the pandemic, the world is racing to contain the latest variant first identified in southern Africa but popping up around the globe. Countries are imposing restrictions or bans on travelers from several countries — much to the South African government’s dismay — and re-imposing measures like mask mandates that some hoped were a thing of the past.
The World Health Organization named the new version of the virus omicron and classified it as a highly transmissible variant of concern, though it actual risks are not yet understood. Early evidence suggests it poses an increased risk that people who have already had COVID-19 could catch it again, the WHO said. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
Still, some experts are hopeful that vaccines will be at least somewhat effective at preventing serious illness and death — and continue to encourage people to get inoculated.
Gauteng province — home to Pretoria and South Africa’s largest city of Johannesburg — is the center of the new surge. So far, cases there appear to be mild, according to doctors, and hospital admissions have not spiked.