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South Africa students shrug off Omicron and fret about exams

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PRETORIA (REUTERS, AFP) – The students knew their South African university was the epicentre of a new Covid-19 variant spreading panic across the globe, but over the past week, many worried more about how Omicron would mess up exams and holiday plans than about catching it.

At the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), in the capital Pretoria, learners languidly walked across the green campus shaded by trees, chatting, buying soft drinks, staring at their phones and sitting on benches overlooking a pond.

Most wore masks; a few did not. Many were vaccinated; some obstinately were not. Around 30 students interviewed by Reuters were mostly concerned about their classes being disrupted again.

And whatever their opinions on the vaccine, the outbreak had done nothing to change their minds.

“This variant has messed us up. It means even more classes online, which makes it hard to learn,” management student Nqubeko Chisale, 21, said. “Sometimes the Internet link doesn’t work. I need to have the teacher in the room.”

Scientists are analysing Omicron to see if it evades the immunity conferred by vaccines or past illness.

The government, meanwhile, is pushing to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible, while urging the cancelling of possible super-spreader events, such as the big student parties and festivals popular this time of year.

Several have already been called off, including a music festival for young people on the coast, after 36 people tested positive for Covid-19 at the site.

Some early data seems to show more young people getting the severe symptoms typically suffered by the elderly. But youngsters are also the least vaccinated: only a fifth of those aged 18 to 34 years have had the shot, official data shows, partly owing to false beliefs about its safety proliferating on the Internet.

Mr Chisale admits he belongs to the other four-fifths.

“So many things I’ve heard about the vaccine: it makes you sick, headache. Maybe someday, but I don’t think I’m ready,” he said, and he is in no rush to change his mind, even with the fourth wave of Covid-19 surging through his campus.

Other students successfully ignored the mountain of false vaccine information, like 20-year-nursing student Sinethemba Nkosi. She and her friends all got the shot, except one – and he was the only one of them who got sick in the latest wave.

Ms Nkosi never caught it from him, even though they share a house.

“I was really encouraging him to get the vaccine, but he was worried about the side effects,” she said of her friend, who since last week has been in bed with a fever. But her bigger concern was the delay of the exams she had been itching to finish.

At a lunch table shaded by a tree outside the university cafeteria, supply chain management students Thato Letsholo and Nkanyiso Sithole ate pork chops, complained about virtual classes, and disagreed with each other about the vaccine.

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Asked if he was worried about the disease itself, Mr Letsholo said: “Yes. I mean it’s killing people”.

But his far bigger fear was the more dreaded online learning and having to repeat a year if his academic calendar keeps getting delayed.

Mr Letsholo’s mother is a nurse, so she convinced him to get the shot.

“I’ve been trying to persuade him,” he said, referring to his classmate, Mr Sithole, who mumbled something about waiting to see how his friend who had just had it would do before risking it.

Sitting on beer crates under a tree, Mr Tshepo Legon and his sports science classmate, Mr Long Matimelami, said nothing but draconian regulations would get them to vaccinate.

“This thing of vaccines is rubbish. I don’t want to take it,” Mr Legon said. “I don’t care about the new variant. If I catch it, I’ll just take my traditional remedies.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday urged citizens to get vaccinated as the country battles an unprecedented surge in cases driven by the new Omicron variant.

The number of daily infections rose five-fold in the space of a week, from 2,828 on Nov 26 to 16,055 last Friday (Dec 3).

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About a quarter of tests for coronavirus have been positive, compared with just around 2 per cent of those tested a fortnight ago.

“We are experiencing a rate of infections that we have not seen since the pandemic started,” President Ramaphosa warned in his weekly newsletter.

Omicron, detected by South African scientists 10 days ago, “appears to be dominating new infections”, he said.

“I call on all South Africans to go out and get vaccinated without delay,” he said.

Mr Ramaphosa, whose country is the worst-hit in Africa for Covid-19, last week hinted at making coronavirus vaccines mandatory.

Despite the rise in infections, fatalities remain relatively low. Just one coronavirus-related death was recorded on Sunday, when 11,125 new infections were diagnosed.

Scientists are keeping a close eye on the new variant to see whether it may be more contagious or virulent, or can side-step existing vaccines.

So far 14.8 million people have been fully vaccinated in South Africa, or around a quarter of the country’s population. The rate of vaccination is higher among adults.

Children aged from 12 years are eligible for vaccines in South Africa.

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With adequate supplies of the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech shots, the government had initially wanted to vaccinate around 70 per cent of the population by year’s end, has moved that target to March 2022.

Seeking to overcome vaccine hesitancy, the authorities at the weekend opened pop-up sites offering jabs at shopping malls, bus stations, airports, churches and recreation centres.

Private businesses are also helping push the vaccinations numbers up.

Africa’s largest telecoms firm MTN said on Monday it will be “implementing a mandatory vaccination policy for staff” starting next month.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that our workplaces are guided by the highest standards of health and safety,” MTN president Ralph Mupita said.

South Africa’s largest health insurance company Discovery, which introduced a mandatory vaccination policy in September, said last week that 94 per cent of its staff are now vaccinated.

Meanwhile, highly populated Gauteng province, which hosts the capital Pretoria and the financial hub, Johannesburg, accounts for most of the current wave of infections.

The first cases of Omicron were detected last month in Gauteng province following a cluster of cases at a university.

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