Africa submerged by Covid third wave as vaccination drive slows to a crawl

·3 min read

Africa is facing a major coronavirus resurgence, with unprecedented hospital admissions and fatalities pushing health facilities to the brink as the continent falls far behind in the global vaccination drive.

With just under 5.3 million reported cases and around 139,000 deaths among its nearly 1.3 billion people, Africa is still the world's least-affected continent after Oceania.

The coronavirus pandemic is resurging at an alarming rate in at least 12 African countries, with continental cases expected to hit a new peak in the next three weeks.

"The third wave is picking up speed, spreading faster, hitting harder," World Health Organisation Africa director Matshidiso Moeti warned Thursday. "The latest surge threatens to be Africa's worst yet".

Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) director John Nkengasong on Thursday described the third wave as "extremely brutal" and "devastating".

And Liberia's President George Weah has warned the wave is "far more alarming than a year ago" as hospitals overflow in his country.

Southern winter complicates situation

Compounding Africa's third wave are immunisation hitches, the spread of more transmissible virus variants and winter temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Delta variant, first detected in India, has so far been reported in 14 African countries, making up the bulk of new cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, according to the WHO.

Doctors in South Africa, which accounts for more than 35 percent of all cases recorded on the continent, are struggling with an unprecedented influx of patients.

Unlike past waves, this time "the hospital system is not coping," said doctors' association chief Angelique Coetzee.

South Africa's average number of daily infections has increased 15-fold since early April, with hospital admissions rising by 60 percent.

Zambia overwhelmed by number of deaths

Namibia and Zambia are also seeing steep infection curves.

Zambia's health ministry has reported an "unprecedented" number of Covid-19 deaths piling pressure on mortuaries while Africa CDC said the country was "overwhelmed".

With similar trends in Uganda, Health Minister Jane Ruth Acheng blamed highly infectious variants for the new spread, "different from the second wave" with a large number of young people hospitalised.

Uganda is one of the countries facing reported oxygen shortages, although Acheng denied civil society groups' claim that the shortfall amounts to 25 million litres per day.

Governments are again tightening restrictions, including a new nationwide lockdown in Uganda and a tougher curfew in 13 Kenyan counties.

Slow pace of continental vaccination

The rate of vaccination remains low in Africa.

According to the WHO, about one percent of the continent's population is fully vaccinated -- the lowest ratio globally -- and 90 percent of African nations will miss a target to inoculate a tenth of their populations by September.

"We are running a race behind time, the pandemic is ahead of us. We are not winning this battle against the virus," said Africa CDC's Nkengasong.

"It's frightening what is going on on the continent," he added.

A recent pledge by Western leaders to donate one billion vaccine doses to poorer countries has been widely criticised for being too slow.

Cases are "outpacing vaccinations", Moeti said. "Africa urgently needs a million more vaccines. We need a sprint".

"The lack of vaccines in a region with high levels of poverty and inequality means many people feel they are just waiting to die," said Amnesty International's regional director Deprose Muchena.