In the poorest countries, increases in COVID meet vaccine shortages

Hati Maronjei once vowed he would never get a COVID-19 vaccination after a pastor warned that vaccines are not safe.

Now, four months after the first batch of vaccines hit Zimbabwe, the 44-year-old electronic goods street vendor is desperately looking for the shot he can’t get. Whenever he visits a clinic in the capital, Harare, he should try again the next day.

“I get frustrated and scared,” he said. “I’m always in crowded places, talking and selling to different people. I can’t lock myself in the house. “

A sense of fear is growing in some of the world’s poorest countries, where coronavirus cases are on the rise and more contagious varieties are taking hold, but vaccine doses are hopelessly short or unavailable.

The crisis has alarmed public health officials as well as millions of the unvaccinated, especially those who toil, hand to mouth and pay cash in health emergencies in the informal, non-literal economy. When intensive care units fill up in cities overwhelmed by the pandemic, a serious illness can be a death sentence.

Africa is particularly at risk. Its 1.3 billion people make up 18% of the world’s population, but the continent has only received 2% of all vaccine doses administered worldwide. And some African countries haven’t fired a single shot.

Health experts and world leaders have repeatedly warned that even if rich nations immunize all of their peoples, if the coronavirus is allowed to spread to countries where there is no vaccine, the pandemic will not be defeated.

“We have said during this pandemic that if we are not all safe, we are not safe,” said John Nkengasong, a Cameroonian virologist who heads the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We are only as strong as the weakest link.”

Zimbabwe, which has imposed new lockdown measures on a sharp rise in deaths and cases, has used about two-thirds of its 1.7 million vaccine doses for a population of 15 million. The government blames logistical challenges for the scarcity in urban areas.

Long lines form at centers like Parirenyatwa Hospital, unlike months ago when authorities asked people for a vaccination. Many are alarmed when winter sets in in the southern hemisphere and the variant first identified in South Africa spreads in Harare, where young people crowd into betting houses, some with masks on their chins, others without any face covering.

“Most people don’t wear masks. There is no social distancing. The only answer is a vaccine, but I don’t get it, ”said Maronjei.

At the start of the pandemic, many deeply impoverished countries with weak health systems appeared to have avoided the worst. It changes.

“The sobering course of the rising number of cases should move everyone to urgent action,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, Africa Director of the World Health Organization. “Public health measures need to be rapidly expanded to find, test, isolate and care for patients, and quickly track and isolate their contacts.”

The number of new cases in Africa rose by almost 30% in the past week, she said on Thursday.

In Zambia, where a vaccination campaign has stalled, authorities have reported the country is running out of bottled oxygen. Sick people whose symptoms are not severe are turned away from hospitals in the capital, Lusaka.

“When we got to the hospital, we were told there was no place for her,” said Jane Bwalya of her 70-year-old grandmother. “They told us to treat the disease from home. So we just went home and tried to give her any medication that could relieve the symptoms. “

Uganda is also struggling with a steep rise in cases and sees a number of variants. Authorities report the surge is infecting more people in their twenties and thirties.

Intensive care units in and around the capital Kampala are almost full, and Misaki Wayengera, a doctor who heads a committee advising the Ugandan government, said some patients “pray for someone to die” so that they can get an intensive care bed .

Many Ugandans feel hopeless when they see astronomical medical bills for patients coming out of the intensive care unit. Some have turned to cooked herb preparations for protection. Lemongrass and small flowering plants are suggested on social media. That aroused fears of poisoning.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni imposed new restrictions this month, including closing all schools. But he avoided the extreme lockdowns of last year and said he did not want to harm people’s livelihoods in a country with a huge informal sector.

The threat of the coronavirus may be great for beauticians, restaurant workers, and salespeople in crowded open-air markets, but even taking a day off when you’re sick is a hardship. Testing costs anywhere from $ 22 to $ 65, which is unaffordable for the working class.

“Unless I felt very sick, I wouldn’t waste all my money testing for COVID,” said Aisha Mbabazi, a waitress at a restaurant outside of Kampala.

Dr. Ian Clarke, who founded a hospital in Uganda, said as the demand for vaccines grows among previously reluctant people, “the downside is that we don’t know when or where to get the next vaccination”.

Africa has had more than 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 135,000 deaths. That’s only a small fraction of the number of cases worldwide, but many fear the crisis could get much worse.

Almost 90% of African countries will miss the global target of vaccinating 10% of their population by September, according to the World Health Organization.

A big problem is that COVAX, the UN-backed project to deliver vaccines to poor corners of the world, is itself facing a serious shortage of vaccines.

Amid a worldwide outcry over the haves and have nots divide, the US, UK and the other group of 7 wealthy nations agreed last week to share at least 1 billion cans with struggling countries over the course of next August.

In the meantime, many of the world’s poor are waiting and worrying.

In Afghanistan, where a war-torn health system threatens to surge, 700,000 cans donated by China arrived over the weekend and within hours “people were fighting each other to get to the front,” said Ministry of Health spokesman Dr. Ghulam Dastigir Nazari.

The rush for vaccines is remarkable in a country where many question the reality of the virus and rarely wear masks or social distancing and often poke fun at those who do.

At the end of May, around 600,000 Afghans had received at least one dose, less than 2% of the 36 million population. But the number of people vaccinated twice is tiny – “so few that I can’t even say a percentage,” said Nazari.

In Haiti, hospitals are turning away patients while the country awaits its first shipment of vaccines. A major shipment via COVAX was delayed due to government concerns about side effects and a lack of infrastructure to keep the cans properly refrigerated.

“I’m in danger every day,” says Nacheline Nazon, a 22-year-old saleswoman who takes a colorful, crowded bus known as tap-tap to a clothing store in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, because that is all she can afford.

She said she wore a mask and was washing her hands. When the vaccine becomes available, she said, “I’ll probably be the first to get it.”

About Ellen Lewandowski

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