NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Africa surpassed the 100,000-death mark confirmed by COVID-19 as the continent, lauded for its response to the start of the pandemic, now faces a dangerous outbreak and a shortage of oxygen for medical use.
“We are more vulnerable than we thought,” said John Nkengasong, director of the mainland’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in an interview with The Associated Press about the pandemic and the number. death, which he described as “remarkably painful.”
Nkengasong was concerned that “we are beginning to normalize deaths” while health workers are overwhelmed.
The continent of 54 nations and some 1.3 billion people has received almost no large-scale shipments of COVID-19 vaccines, but a variant of the dominant virus in South Africa already poses a challenge for vaccination campaigns. Still, if doses arrive, the region should be able to vaccinate 35-40% of its population before the end of 2021, and 65% by the end of 2022, Nkengasong said.
Health authorities who breathed a sigh of relief last year when the region did not register a large number of deaths from coronavirus, now report an increase in the number of deaths. Africa’s CDC said Friday that the total death toll reached 100,294.
Deaths from COVID-19 on the continent increased by 40% in the last month compared to the previous one, the head of the World Health Organization for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, told reporters last week. This represents more than 22,000 deaths in the last four weeks.
This rise is a “tragic warning that workers and health systems in many countries in Africa are dangerously saturated,” he said, adding that avoiding severe cases and hospitalizations is crucial.
But the latest data shows a slowdown. In the week ending Sunday, deaths were down 28%, the CDC noted Thursday.
Africa exceeded 100,000 deaths just over a year after confirming the first contagion, detected in Egypt on February 14, 2020.
But many more people have died from the coronavirus in the region, even if they are not included in the official count.
South Africa, the nation hardest hit by the pandemic on the continent, recorded more than 125,000 more deaths from natural causes between May 3 of last year and January 23. Although it is not clear how many of them were due to the virus, there was “a close correspondence between excess deaths and the increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19 in each province,” noted the South African Medical Research Rabbit.
As many African nations lack the means to track mortality data, it is unclear how many more have occurred in the region since the start of the pandemic.
“People are dying for lack of basic care,” Nkengasong said, citing medicinal oxygen as a critical need.
Twenty-one African countries have mortality rates higher than the global average, explained the CDC director, including Sudan, Egypt, Liberia, Mali and Zimbabwe. The combined rate for the continent remains well above the world average of 2.6%.
“The second wave came in force partly because of this new variant (in South Africa), partly because we created opportunities for massive contagion” such as the Christmas holidays, said Salim Abdool Karim, the South African government’s chief adviser for COVID-19. “The virus adapts and improves over time because it progressively mutates to improve its adaptation.”
The Associated Press journalist Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed to this report.