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vax in South Africa

Citizens receive the Covid-19 vaccine at Jabulani Mall Mobile Vaccination Site on July 6, 2021 in Soweto, South Africa.(Photo: Papi Morake/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

As Rich Nations Refuse to Share Vaccines, Africa Suffers 'Most Dire Pandemic Week'

The World Health Organization's regional director warns that "the end to this precipitous rise is still weeks away."

Jessica Corbett

Underscoring the desperate need to dramatically increase equitable access to coronavirus vaccines on a global scale, Africa just saw its worst pandemic week yet and conditions across the continent are only expected to get worse in the weeks ahead.

"The worst is yet to come as the fast-moving third wave continues to gain speed and new ground."
—Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO

With the ultra-contagious Delta variant spreading, Africa recorded over 251,000 new Covid-19 cases during the week that ended July 4—a 20% jump from the previous week and a 12% rise from the high point in January, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday.

As Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for the continent, put it: "Africa has just marked the continent's most dire pandemic week ever. But the worst is yet to come as the fast-moving third wave continues to gain speed and new ground."

"The end to this precipitous rise is still weeks away," Moeti warned. "Cases are doubling now every 18 days, compared with every 21 days only a week ago. We can still break the chain of transmission by testing, isolating contacts and cases, and following key public health measures."

According to BBC News:

There are 23 countries on the continent that have so far experienced a third wave of infections, with Senegal and Malawi the latest two to be affected.

Of those, 13 are experiencing a more severe wave than before, the Africa CDC says, with Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Zambia, Rwanda, and Tunisia the worst hit.

Cases in Afria

Liberia, during the final two weeks of last month, saw Covid-19 cases surge by more than 300%.

"Since the beginning of June, we've had 21 deaths," Dr. Richard Doe, clinical coordinator at a Covid-19 treatment unit in the capital, Monrovia, told Al Jazeera. "Just to put that into perspective, it's more than we had from March to December last year."

"Our facilities here are struggling," said Doe, explaining that a lack of human resources means ventilators are not being used. "We need the public to help us in this fight against Covid. As long as the people out there do not practice those basic things—wearing masks, hand hygiene, social distancing, and getting vaccinated where available, it will be like a rat race we can't keep up with."

CNN on Friday detailed some scenes from South Africa:

Patients are crammed into every corner of the hospital's emergency room ward. They lie on beds and gurneys, or sit slumped in wheelchairs. Many suck on oxygen, but nobody talks. Some die while waiting for a bed.

On the worst nights in Johannesburg, currently in the grips of a terrible wave of infections, medics at one hospital must turn away ambulances carrying Covid-19 patients. It may be a diversion order more common to mass casualty events, but 16 months into the pandemic here, Covid-19 is a mass casualty event.

"It's devastating, it's soul destroying," said a senior doctor at a major public hospital in Johannesburg. "We are trained to save lives, but you revert to that wartime mentality. You revert to becoming numbed, you revert to becoming blunted."

The doctor explained that cars are arriving at the hospital "with desperately ill patients who have been turned away from other hospitals with no beds."

The outbreak in South Africa is now largely driven by the Delta variant, the Hindustan Times reported Friday—and new research has raised concerns about the threat that variant in particular poses to the unvaccinated and partially vaccinated worldwide.

South Africa, which on Friday announced plans to start vaccinating people under age 50, has administered at least one dose to only about 6% of its population, the newspaper noted, and just over 2% of people there are fully vaccinated.

Although that figure starkly contrasts with vaccination rates in rich countries such as the the United States, it is slightly higher than the continent's numbers. Only 16 million, or less than 2%, of Africans are now fully vaccinated.

Globally, nearly a quarter of people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine—but only 1% of people in low-income countries have had at least one shot, according to Our World in Data.

A total of 66 million vaccine doses have been delivered to Africa—largely through bilateral deals and the WHO-led COVAX—and 50 million doses have been administered, but several countries are rapidly using up their supplies, the United Nations agency warns.

Moeti on Thursday highlighted that more doses are headed for the continent.

"COVAX partners are working around the clock to clinch dose-sharing pledges and procurement deals with manufacturers to ensure that the most vulnerable Africans get a Covid-19 vaccination quickly," the WHO regional director said. "These efforts are paying off. Our appeals for 'we first and not me first' are finally turning talk into action. But the deliveries can't come soon enough because the third wave looms large across the continent."

"With much larger Covid-19 vaccine deliveries expected to arrive in July and August, African countries must use this time to prepare to rapidly expand the roll-out," she added. "Governments and partners can do this by planning to expand vaccination sites, improving cold chain capacities beyond capital cities, sensitizing communities to boost vaccine confidence and demand, and ensuring that operational funding is ready to go when it is needed."

Even given those anticipated deliveries, public health leaders and justice advocates continue to decry the nationalistic approaches that wealthy nations have taken throughout the pandemic.

"Vaccine nationalism, where a handful of nations have taken the lion's share, is morally indefensible," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director-General, declared Wednesday.

"Variants are currently winning the race against vaccines because of inequitable vaccine production and distribution, which also threatens the global economic recovery," Tedros added. "It didn't have to be this way and it doesn't have to be this way going forward."

The global Covid-19 death toll topped four million this week and provoked fresh demands that members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) support a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines.

"This is a moral and human rights catastrophe," Colm O'Gorman, executive director of Amnesty Ireland, tweeted Thursday in response to the world's Covid-19 casualties.

"It's still not too late for Ireland to step up and do what is simply right," O'Gorman added, urging governments against the WTO waiver to "put people's lives and human rights ahead of the profits of Big Pharma."


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