Baltimore Sun

Virus crisis slams poorest countries

Vaccines in short supply even as case numbers surge

- By Rodney Muhumuza and Farai Mutsaka

KAMPALA, Uganda — Hati Maronjei once swore he would never get a COVID-19 shot, after a pastor warned that vaccines aren’t safe.

Now, four months after the first batch of vaccines arrived in Zimbabwe, the 44-year-old street hawker of electronic items is desperate for the shot he can’t get. Whenever he visits a clinic in the capital, Harare, he is told to try again the next day.

“I am getting frustrated and afraid,” he said. “I am always in crowded places, talking, selling ... I can’t lock myself in the house.”

A sense of dread is growing in some of the poorest countries in the world as virus cases surge and more contagious variants take hold amid a crippling shortage of vaccine.

The crisis has alarmed public health officials along with the millions of unvaccinat­ed, especially those who toil in the informal, off-the-books economy, live hand-to-mouth and pay cash in health emergencie­s. With intensive care units filling in cities overwhelme­d by the pandemic, severe disease can mean death.

Africa is especially vulnerable. Its 1.3 billion people account for 18% of the world’s population, but the continent has received only 2% of all vaccine doses administer­ed globally. And some African countries have yet to dispense a single shot.

Health experts and world leaders have repeatedly warned that even if rich nations immunize all their people, the pandemic will not be defeated if the virus is allowed to spread in countries starved of vaccine.

“We’ve said all through this pandemic that we are not safe unless we are all safe,” said John Nkengasong, a Cameroonia­n virologist who heads the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zimbabwe, which has imposed new lockdown measures because of a sharp rise in deaths and cases in the country of over 15 million people, has used just over a million of 1.7 million doses, blaming shortages in urban areas on logistical challenges.

Long lines form at centers such as Parirenyat­wa Hospital, unlike months ago, when authoritie­s were begging people to get vaccinated. Many are alarmed as winter sets in and the variant first identified in South Africa spreads in Harare, where young people crowd into betting houses, some with masks dangling from their chins and others without.

“There is no social distancing. The only answer is a vaccine, but I can’t get it,” Maronjei said.

At the start of the pandemic, many impoverish­ed countries with weak health care systems appeared to have avoided the worst. That is changing.

“The sobering trajectory of surging cases should rouse everyone to urgent action,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, Africa director of the World Health Organizati­on. “Public health measures must be scaled up fast to find, test, isolate and care for patients, and to quickly trace and isolate

their contacts.”

New cases on the continent rose by nearly 30% in the past week, she said Thursday.

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

“When we reached the hospital, we were told there was no bed space for her,” Jane Bwalya said of her 70-year-old grandmothe­r. “They told us to manage the disease from home. So we just went back home, and we are trying to give her whatever medicine can reduce the symptoms.”

Uganda is likewise fighting a sharp rise in cases and is seeing an array of variants. Authoritie­s report that the surge is infecting more

people in their 20s and 30s.

Intensive care units in and around the capital, Kampala, are almost full, and Misaki Wayengera, a doctor who heads a committee advising Uganda’s government, said some patients are “praying for someone to pass on” so that they can get an ICU bed.

Many Ugandans feel hopeless when they see the astronomic­al medical bills of patients emerging from intensive care.

Some have turned to concoction­s of boiled herbs for protection.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni imposed new restrictio­ns this month that included closing all schools. But he avoided the extreme lockdown measures of last year, saying he didn’t want to hurt people’s livelihood­s in a country with a vast informal sector.

For beautician­s, restaurant workers and vendors in crowded open-air markets struggling to put food on the table, the threat from COVID-19 may be high, but taking even a day off when sick is a hardship. Testing costs $22 to $65, prohibitiv­e for the working class.

“Unless I am feeling very sick, I wouldn’t waste all my money to go and test for COVID,” said Aisha Mbabazi, a 28-yearold waiter in a restaurant outside Kampala.

Dr. Ian Clarke, who founded a hospital in Uganda, said that while vaccine demand is growing among the previously hesitant, “the downside is that we do not know when, or from where, we will get the next batch” of shots.

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

Nearly 90% of African countries are set to miss the global target of vaccinatin­g 10% of their people by September, according to the World Health Organizati­on. One major problem is that COVAX, the U.N.-backed project to supply vaccine to poor corners of the world, is itself facing a serious shortage of vaccine.

Amid a global outcry over the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the Group of Seven wealthy nations agreed last week to share at least 1 billion doses with struggling countries over the next year, with deliveries starting in August.

In the meantime, the wait goes on.

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

In Haiti, hospitals are turning away patients as the country awaits its first shipment of vaccines. A major delivery via COVAX was delayed amid government concern over side effects and a lack of infrastruc­ture to keep the doses properly refrigerat­ed.

“I’m at risk every single day,” said Nacheline Nazon, a 22-year-old salesperso­n who takes a colorful, crowded bus to work at a clothing store in Port-auPrince because that is all she can afford.

If the vaccine becomes available, she said, “I’ll probably be the first one in line to get it.”

 ?? NICHOLAS BAMULANZEK­I/AP ?? A woman receives a coronaviru­s vaccinatio­n in Kampala, Uganda. While Africa’s 1.3 billion people account for 18% of the world’s population, the continent has received just 2% of all vaccine doses administer­ed globally.
NICHOLAS BAMULANZEK­I/AP A woman receives a coronaviru­s vaccinatio­n in Kampala, Uganda. While Africa’s 1.3 billion people account for 18% of the world’s population, the continent has received just 2% of all vaccine doses administer­ed globally.

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