Coroners in Tunisia—which is experiencing its fourth and worst wave of the COVID-19 pandemic— have run out of space, meaning the dead are often left in crowded hospital rooms alongside still suffering patients for 24 hours. The morgues are full, the health ministry says. Even the dead, it seems, are suffering.
“We are in a catastrophic situation… the boat is sinking,” Tunisia’s health ministry spokesperson Nisaf Ben Alaya told reporters this week. “The health system collapsed, we can only find a bed in hospitals with great difficulty. We are struggling to provide oxygen… Doctors are suffering from unprecedented fatigue.”
Tunisia, in North Africa, has 4 percent of its citizens fully vaccinated, more than twice the average across the continent, where the Delta variant has decimated whole towns. Vaccines delivered through COVAX, donated from the world’s wealthiest nations, have arrived in small doses, leaving an already vulnerable part of the world with no defenses. Just over 1 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated according to the WHO and vaccines that are scheduled to finally arrive next month will only scrape the surface when it comes to distribution.
“Alarm bells should be going off,” Tom Kenyon, chief health officer at Project HOPE and former director of the Center for Global Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNBC. “Given the horrors we just saw in India, that should be cause for alarm and stimulate action.” Kenyon predicts Africa’s worst case scenario will soon be more dire than Asia’s.
The World Health Organization on Thursday said the second-largest continent in the world has suffered its “worst pandemic week ever,” logging some 251,000 new infections, up 20 percent from the week before and up 12 percent from the worst of the last wave in January. Now more than 16 African countries, including some of the poorest, such as Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Senegal, are reporting deadly surges. In some rural areas, there are still no tests available, let alone vaccines.
“A few weeks ago, we projected this milestone would be reached shortly, and it brings me no joy to be right,” WHO regional director Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference on Thursday. “For Africa, the worst is yet to come. The end to this precipitous rise is still weeks away. Cases are doubling now every 18 days, compared with every 21 days only a week ago.”
The spike in cases has more to do with wealthy nations holding out on promised vaccines than the Delta variant, which authorities fear may mutate into a stronger African variant.
Just 66 million doses of vaccines have been delivered to all of Africa, which has a population of 1.3 billion. By comparison, more than 332 million shots have been administered in the United States, with a population of 372 million. Had even a quarter of the continent’s people been vaccinated, things might have been different, Moeti said. But there is no turning back the clock now.
“Vaccine nationalism, where a handful of nations have taken the lion’s share, is morally indefensible and an ineffective public health strategy,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, said this week, blaming selfish nations for the “wave of death” now engulfing Africa.