JOHANNESBURG—In Uganda, hospitals have become so overwhelmed with new coronavirus cases that the sick are dying while waiting for a bed. In Namibia, all nonemergency surgery has been canceled to preserve space for Covid-19 patients and military hospitals have been opened for civilian use. In South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, intensive-care wards are filling up and hospitals are stockpiling oxygen cylinders as infections surge again.
Across Africa, which has received fewer Covid-19 vaccines than any other continent, countries are confronting a new wave in coronavirus infections without the inoculations that have turned the tide of the pandemic in Europe and North America.
News that the Group of Seven countries will donate at least one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries holds out the promise of some relief on a continent where 0.6% of the 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
However, the donated shots—most of which won’t start to arrive until August or later—may not prevent many African governments from running out of shots in the coming weeks as deliveries from the World Health Organization-backed Covax program for developing countries have slowed to a trickle.
Meanwhile, new, more transmissible virus variants are taking root in several African nations, compounding their struggle to rebound from the continent’s worst recession on record.
The donated shots will help inoculate the millions of doctors and nurses who work in some of the weakest healthcare systems in the world, often treating Covid-19 patients without the protection their colleagues elsewhere received months ago. Health officials say millions more doses are needed to inoculate the general population and end the pandemic.
“The continent is going through a third wave, no doubt about that,” said John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “All countries…must arm themselves with treatment facilities. That includes availability of oxygen and other treatment-related commodities.”
Case counts are on the rise in 14 of Africa’s 54 countries, increasing by 26% in the first week of June, compared with the previous seven days, Dr. Nkengasong said. The epicenters of the new outbreaks are in national capitals, where there often is more capacity to record cases. The situation in towns and villages remains largely uncharted.
Kinshasa, a megacity of some 11 million people and capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is under curfew after the WHO detected an exponential rise in cases in May. “We are not only overwhelmed, but sometimes we are without water, electricity, oxygen or even beds,” said Augustin Mulumba, a doctor who works on the Covid-19 ward in the Hôpital du Cinquantenaire, a large private hospital in Kinshasa.
Daily infections in South Africa’s most-populous province of Gauteng, home to its political and economic capitals, Pretoria and Johannesburg, have nearly doubled over the past week. Epidemiologists warn that the cities may set a record for deaths later this month.
At Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg, Covid-19 patients have to wait up to five days for a spot in the intensive-care unit while beds in other wards are also quickly filling up, a doctor working there said. At Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, another large public hospital in Johannesburg, doctors from other departments are being shifted to the Covid-19 ward to help deal with an influx of patients.