Coronavirus cases spike in Africa. ‘The India example is not lost to us

Awaiting laboratory results at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu, Kenya.Credit…Brian Otieno for The New York Times

With medical supplies depleted, vaccines scarce, doctors lamenting physical and mental fatigue and hospitals turning away patients for lack of beds or oxygen, health officials say they fear a wave like the one that ripped through India in April and May could be looming in western Kenya and other parts of Africa.

All of Africa is vulnerable, as the latest wave of the pandemic sweeps the continent, driven in part by more transmissible variants. Fewer than 1 percent of Africa’s people have been even partly vaccinated, by far the lowest rate for any continent.

“I think the greatest risk in Africa is to look at what happened in Italy earlier on and what happened in India and start thinking we are safe — to say it’s very far away from us and that we may not go the same way,” said Dr. Mark Nanyingi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool in Britain. He called a surge now gripping western Kenya a “storm on the horizon.”

Covid-related deaths in Africa climbed by nearly 15 percent last week compared to the previous one, based on available data from almost 40 nations, the World Health Organization said. But experts say the true scale of the pandemic far exceeds reported figures in Africa, where testing and tracing remain a challenge for many countries, and many nations do not collect mortality data.

In late May, before Kenya’s president and other leaders arrived to celebrate a major public holiday, health officials in Kisumu on Lake Victoria saw disaster brewing. Coronavirus cases were spiking, hospital isolation units were filling up and the highly contagious Delta variant had been found in Kenya for the first time — in Kisumu County.

Local health officials pleaded with the politicians to hold a virtual event instead, but their objections were waved away. In the weeks since, all reports show an alarming surge in infections and deaths in the county of just over 1.1 million people, with the virus sickening mostly young people.

“The India example is not lost to us,” Dr. Nyunya said.


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