Africa faces new wave of contagion as vaccine shortages hit

The WHO has warned that this new wave "may be the worst" for the continent, which has less than 1% of its population fully vaccinated
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REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO  -   March to demand the roll-out of coronavirus disease vaccines (COVID-19), in Pretoria, South Africa, on 25 June 2021.

The African continent has been one of the least affected by the coronavirus pandemic, avoiding fatal situations such as those experienced in Brazil or India. Africa has managed to fight the virus better than other parts of the world, despite fears at the beginning of the pandemic. "I thought we were heading for a disaster, a total collapse," South African virologist Shabir Madhi told the BBC. Analysts predicted health chaos in Africa, as well as a high death toll. However, while European, American and Asian health centres were overflowing, the numbers in Africa remained low. In South Africa, for example, its first wave of infections had a death rate almost seven times lower than that of the UK.

Several experts associated this situation with the high African youth population. "Age is the highest risk factor. Africa's young population protects the continent," Tim Bromfield, regional director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, told BCC. Another of Africa's strengths is, unfortunately, its experience with other communicable diseases such as cholera, Ebola, HIV and malaria. These viruses have prompted innovation in Africa's healthcare system, as well as preparing citizens for restrictions and prevention measures.

However, despite the good situation in Africa during the early stages of COVID-19, a new wave threatening the continent has experts worried. As Europe relaxes health restrictions, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns that this wave "could be the worst" for the African continent. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa, says the wave "is accelerating and spreading rapidly". Moeti also warns that it "hits harder" than previous waves.

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AP/BRIAN INGANGA - Medical staff in protective gear attend to patients affected by COVID-19 in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Machakos County Level 5 hospital in Machakos, Kenya.

Currently, the number of coronavirus cases in Africa stands at 5.4 million. South Africa is the most affected country with 35% of infections, followed by Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Egypt. Namibia and Zambia, close to South Africa, are also experiencing a high incidence of COVID-19. Zambia's health minister recently warned of overcrowding in the country's morgues. His Ugandan counterpart told AFP about the large number of young people admitted to hospitals. In Uganda, as in 14 other African countries, the Delta variant, first identified in India, has already been detected.

Hospitals in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, are already having difficulty obtaining bottled oxygen. This problem is also faced by health centres in other cities in the country. On the other hand, citizens complain about the precarious situation in government hospitals, so some decide to go to private clinics. However, these centres are not affordable for everyone. According to the Associated Press, bills at these clinics run as high as $15,000, while the annual per capita income in the country is less than $1,000.

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REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE - Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Africa

Other nations that had managed to remain relatively immune to the coronavirus, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, are experiencing an increase in cases. "The situation is more alarming than it was a year ago," said Liberian President George Weah.

As the numbers increase, governments are opting for new restrictions and health measures. In Uganda, schools have been closed, night curfews are in place, and only vehicles carrying essential goods, workers or the sick are allowed on the roads. Many traders have been forced to sleep in their tents because they cannot drive home. Kenya also imposed a curfew, while Namibia and Zimbabwe reimposed restrictions to deal with the spread of the virus.

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AP/BRIAN INGANGA - Children run along a street next to an information mural warning of the dangers of the coronavirus in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.
Rise in infections coincides with vaccine shortages

According to WHO data, less than 1% of the African population is fully vaccinated. The organisation insists on the need to move more doses to the continent. "Our priority is clear: it is crucial that we get vaccines quickly into the arms of Africans at high risk of becoming seriously ill and dying from EVD-19," Moeti said.

The WHO Africa chief also urged Western powers to donate vaccines to Africa. "Countries that can must urgently share coronavirus vaccines. It is a matter of life and death," she said.

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AP/DENIS FARRELL - In the global race to vaccinate people against COVID-19, Africa is tragically at the back of the pack.

The US recently purchased 500 million vaccines from Pfizer to be delivered to 100 countries over the next two years through Covax, the WHO-driven platform to ensure global and equal access to coronavirus drugs. However, several organisations have criticised Covax for its lack of progress. In developing countries, only 0.4% of the vaccines have been administered. "Covax was destined to fail because it is based on the rules of the pharmaceutical industry, where manufacturers always sell to the highest bidder," explains Manuel Martin of Médecins Sans Frontières.

In Africa, many of the vaccines sent through the platform arrived expired. In May, Malawi discarded almost 20,000 doses. The Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan returned more than two million vaccines. South Africa destroyed another two million due to manufacturing faults in the drugs.

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AP/JEROME DELAY - Homeless people waiting to receive food baskets from private donors sanitise their hands on Monday, 13 April 2020 in downtown Johannesburg.

"While rich countries hoard vaccines and refuse to relinquish intellectual property rights, the people of South Africa have no protection from an increasingly deadly third wave," Amnesty International said in a statement. "Access to COVID-19 vaccines should not be determined by where a person lives or how much they earn," the organisation added.

Recently, the Biden administration gave the go-ahead for the liberalisation of patents on coronavirus vaccines, creating a debate in the international community. However, some EU countries have been reluctant to follow in Washington's footsteps. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission, considers that this measure would not be useful, claiming that "it will not allow an increase in the production of doses in the short and medium term".

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AP/NICHOLAS BAMULANZEKI - In this Friday, March 5, 2021 file photo, Uganda's Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng, and other officials receive the country's first shipment of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and supplied through the COVAX global initiative, at Entebbe airport, Uganda.

Desperation over the lack of vaccines has driven hundreds of citizens onto the streets in protest. In the South African city of Pretoria, activists and political opponents organised marches demanding a faster vaccination process. "Our agenda is simple, give vaccines to our people," said Julius Malema, leader of the country's left wing.