A second growing wave of coronavirus threatens to overwhelm fragile health systems across Africa after months of relatively moderate impact on the continent, officials have warned.
Authorities in Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as international organizations, say hospital capacity and oxygen supplies run out as death rate continent-wide this month topped the global average for the first time.
“This is very serious,” Dr John Nkengasong, head of the AU’s African Centers for Disease Control, told reporters last week. He called on African leaders to subsidize masks because “for now [they] are the best vaccines we have ”.
Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of the Nigerian Center for Disease Control, warned that doctors would soon be faced with “tough decisions” about who to treat.
“The biggest indicator that will put us under pressure is the number of deaths,” he said last week. “We have to keep working to save as many people as possible given the boundaries that are clear [African] health systems. “
In recent weeks, daily case rates across the continent have climbed to about double the previous peak in July and August and are expected to increase further as the impact of travel during the December holiday period becomes clearer, Dr Nkengasong said.
“What drives him. . . is very clearly human behavior, ”he said, arguing that after strict adherence to mitigation measures last year,“ prevention fatigue ”had set in with people neglecting safety practices. social distancing.
The number of cases remains relatively low in most African countries, which are among the youngest populations in the world. The continent has recorded just over 3.1 million infections and an estimated 75,000 deaths in a population of 1.3 billion, although health officials say some countries have underreported.
But the numbers have risen 18% over the past month. Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa recorded an increase of more than 25% during the period. After three months with 100-200 confirmed cases per day, Nigeria recorded more than 1,000 cases in a single day for the first time last month, and Jan. 6 reported a record high of 1,664. Out of around 1.27 million Confirmed infections in South Africa to date, around 200,000 have been recorded since the start of 2021.
Death rates in 20 African countries are now above the global average of 2.2%, with the number of deaths increasing by more than 30% in the past month in Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa.
African countries struggled to procure medical supplies in the first few months as rich countries purchased supplies. They have also been overtaken in terms of access to vaccines.
While 600 million doses have been targeted for the continent by Covax, the international facility supported by WHO and set up to consolidate orders from the poorest countries, countries are still waiting for this supply and do not have the financial clout to compete with richer countries by ordering directly from manufacturers .
The African Union announced last week that it had obtained 270 million doses for its 54 member countries, which have a population of around 1.2 billion. The vaccines were ordered from Pfizer, Oxford / AstraZeneca via the Serum Institute of India and Johnson & Johnson. The AU hopes to start deploying them by April.
Officials in some countries, including Nigeria, have promised the first jabs will start this month. However, only South Africa has an agreement outside of Covax with a manufacturer, for 1.5 million doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute.
The DU doses are in addition to the Covax program, which aims to help 92 developing countries gain access to vaccines, although it only covers around 20% of their population. The AU aims to immunize 60% of its population within two to three years.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who chairs the AU, said last week that until June, Covax supplies “may not go beyond the needs of frontline health workers, and so may not be enough to contain the ever growing toll of the pandemic in Africa “.
As the pandemic escalates, many countries are tightening restrictions, introducing restrictions on large gatherings, school closings and compulsory mask wear.
Zimbabwe reimposed a national lockdown this month, while last week South Africa – where a plus infectious variant of the virus caused its spread – land borders closed.
But full lockdowns will be difficult to institute, given the devastating impact of last year’s closures on largely informal economies. The IMF has projected Africa’s GDP to contract by 3% in 2020.
“It will take time for vaccines to reach all populations,” said Dr Faisal Shuaib, director general of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency. “Face masks, social distancing, hand washing, disinfectants. . . we need to get back to those interventions that will save lives and support livelihoods. “