Africans ‘dangerously exposed’ by lack of Covid jabs, says WHO

The World Health Organization has made a new appeal for vaccines for Africa, saying a “fast-surging” third wave of Covid-19 is outpacing efforts to protect populations, “leaving more and more dangerously exposed”.

“The third wave is picking up speed, spreading faster, hitting harder. This is incredibly worrying. With rapidly rising case numbers and increasing reports of serious illness, the latest surge threatens to be Africa’s worst yet,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said on Thursday.

African countries have recorded more than 5m cases and almost 140,000 deaths, though the true numbers are thought to be much higher.

Cases on the continent have risen for five consecutive weeks, since early May. South Africa, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among the countries where the surge appears most severe and health systems are close to being overwhelmed.

Officials blame factors including reduced compliance with public health measures, increased movement and the spread of the Delta variant, which is now dominant in the DRC and Uganda.

Many authorities appear to have been caught unaware, even after more than a year of struggling to contain successive waves of infection. In South Africa’s Gauteng province, the most populous and economically productive part of the country, Covid patients are waiting for days on stretchers in accident and emergency wards before being found a bed, officials at hospitals in Johannesburg have said. There have also been problems sourcing sufficient oxygen.

“We are struggling. We are under extreme pressure. The pandemic is everywhere,” the Gauteng premier, David Makhura, said on Thursday.

The surge in infections during the southern hemisphere winter was widely predicted, leading to angry criticism of provincial and national officials. In South Africa, outrage has been fuelled by a series of corruption scandals. The health minister has been suspended pending an investigation into graft allegations.

In Kenya, politicians decided to go ahead with mass rallies despite warnings from health experts.

The crisis has been worsened by slow vaccination progress across the continent, owing to limited availability after western countries bought them all, and administrative failures. Just over one in 100 people across Africa have been vaccinated.

Eight African countries have used all the stocks supplied to them by Covax, the UN-backed vaccine-sharing facility, and another 18 are close to exhausting their stocks. Dozens more have less than half remaining. Out of 2.7bn doses administered globally, just under 1.5% have been administered in Africa.

John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said the continent was not winning its battle against the virus.

“The third wave has come with the severity that most countries were not prepared for. So the third wave is extremely brutal,” Nkengasong said during a weekly online briefing. “It does not really matter to me whether the vaccines are from Covax or anywhere. All we need is rapid access to vaccines.”

Earlier this week the African Union special envoy Strive Masiyiwa accused rich nations of deliberately failing to provide enough Covid-19 vaccines to the continent.

Masiyiwa, the union’s special envoy to the African vaccine acquisition task team, said the Covax scheme had failed to keep its promise to secure production of 700m doses of vaccines in time for delivery by December 2021.

“It’s not a question of if this was a moral failure, it was deliberate. Those with the resources pushed their way to the front of the queue and took control of their production assets,” Masiyiwa told a panel discussion hosted by CNBC on Wednesday.

Though governments have tried to minimise economic damage by avoiding hard lockdowns, the long-term consequences of the pandemic across Africa are likely to be severe.

Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said on Wednesday that Africa was facing “an economic calamity”, with growth this year forecast to be half of the 6% expected globally.

“The warning signs are clear: a two-track pandemic is leading to a two-track recovery. Africa is already falling behind in terms of growth prospects,” Georgieva said.

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