African nations struggle with vaccine access, public mistrust and disinformation

Record numbers of COVID-19 cases are being reported across Africa as the delta variant pushes hospitals to a breaking point. ICU beds and oxygen are in desperately short supply, vaccines are increasingly scarce and according to the World Health Organization, there’s little hope even 10% of Africans will get a shot before 2021 ends. Special correspondent Isabel Nakirya reports from Kampala, Uganda.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Delta variant is ravaging the continent of Africa. ICU beds and oxygen are in desperately short supply. Vaccines are increasingly scarce, with less than 10 percent of people expected to be vaccinated by the end of the year.

    Special correspondent Isabel Nakirya in Kampala, Uganda.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Asumpta Bahenda has been trying to wash away her near death experience for two months now. She suffered from a severe case of COVID-19 in June.

  • Asumpta Bahenda:

    I started feeling like I was going to die.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    An ambulance evacuated her more than 170 miles from Western Uganda to the capital, Kampala, but finding a bed in a hospital was almost impossible.

    With damaged lungs, Asumpta needed immediate admission to an ICU. When she finally found a bed in a private hospital, oxygen was in short supply.

  • Asumpta Bahenda:

    There's a moment where they were rationing oxygen. They come and remove the oxygen from you and take it to somebody else who's struggling.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Uganda is going through a severe second wave. When cases shot up, the lucky few got beds when a patient died. It seems almost everyone lost someone close to them.

  • Asumpta Bahenda:

    They told me, "Your friend has gone, but you have to fight for your life."

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Public hospitals across Uganda ran out of personal protective equipment during the height of the pandemic in June.

    Irene Nakasita managed to get a hospital bed some 25 miles out of the capital, but there were no doctors on hand to monitor her deteriorating condition.

  • Irene Nakasita:

    I said I can't take chances with my life anymore. I need to get out of the facility, whether discharged or not, because I had actually not seen any professional doctor walk to me to support me throughout. There were only nurses.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    The limited supply of vaccines is another issue. Asumpta and Irene had received only their first doses one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and were waiting to get their second doses, when they were infected.

    Uganda has vaccinated just about 1 percent of its population of 40 million. So far, it's received less than two million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, not nearly enough to vaccinate half the population, which it says it wants to do before fully reopening the economy.

    Cases are soaring in neighboring Tanzania, but it's open for business. The country's former President John Magufuli, who died in office in March, was skeptical of the virus. He downplayed the risks of COVID-19 and even shunned mask-wearing in favor of healing prayers and traditional herbal remedies.

    But under a new president, Tanzania has made a dramatic turnaround and reversed policies on COVID-19. It started to release data on coronavirus infections. And Tanzania is now ramping up vaccinations with its first shipment of vaccines from the United Nations global COVAX program.

    Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of Tanzania (through translator): My fellow Tanzanians, I thank all of you who are here today to support me and show Tanzanians that the vaccine is not a disaster.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    But not all Tanzanians are signing on.

    Silvia Senya spent 22 days in emergency care with COVID-19 and almost lost her unborn baby. She's not convinced the vaccines are safe.

  • Silvia Deogratious Senya, (through translator):

    I will wait. I won't get the jab right now.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    In the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite increasing cases of the coronavirus, there's growing skepticism and deep mistrust of vaccines.

    The country has returned more than a million vaccine doses donated by the African Union because so many Congolese have refused to get the shots. Many people have taken false messaging and conspiracy theories to heart.

  • Patrick Makinu, Businessman (through translator):

    The COVID-19 vaccine has been rejected by most Congolese and some foreigners for a good reason. The spirits of our ancestors are using it to punish whites. It is something that we don't fully understand. But the goal of those foreigners is to destroy Africa.

  • Merdi Vuata, Motorcycle Taxi Driver (through translator):

    Some passengers I have met have warned me against taking the COVID-19 vaccine. They keep telling me that I will die after getting the jab. Many people have told me the same thing, so I have decided not to take it.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Public hospitals in DRC's capital, Kinshasa, are ill-equipped. The country battled the Ebola epidemic for years, depleting its health care system.

    Hospitals are running out of protective gear, but some health workers are determined to keep taking the risks to save lives.

    Dr. Emily Lebughe came to work even after contracting COVID-19.

  • Dr. Emily Lebughe, Kinshasa General Hospital (through translator):

    I had a fever and decided to treat it with acetaminophen. But I had to keep on working, because the community and the COVID-19 unit needed me.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    In West Africa, in Nigeria, the highly transmissible Delta variant is setting off a spike in daily coronavirus infections. And the number of actual cases may be much higher than reported, signaling the start of a third wave, says Dr. Emmanuel Okpetu.

  • Dr. Emmanuel Okpetu, Nigeria Public Health Physician:

    When you look at the population of 200-million plus, we have not still tested enough. So it is possible we have a lot of missed cases.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    South Africa has reported the highest number of cases and the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in Africa. It also has one of the highest vaccination rates on the continent, at 6 percent, but it's still far from the target.

    University of Cape Town researcher Benjamin Kagina says access to vaccines is vital.

  • Dr. Benjamin Kagina:

    As long as we have this problem of inequity and access to vaccines, it means that the virus will be somewhere out there circulating.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Africa has vaccinated just 2.5 percent of its 1.3 billion population, despite a surge in cases, with most of the countries depending on donations from wealthy nations.

    The U.S. recently donated millions of dollars to Nigeria and South Africa. India played a major role in bringing in millions of doses, but the country put a stop to vaccine exports for its own domestic use in April.

    African Union envoy on vaccine acquisition Strive Masiyiwa is pushing diplomats to release vaccines.

  • Strive Masiyiwa:

    Those are being politically restricted. It's not the manufacturers, but it's the — it's political.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Despite promises from more wealthy nations to send vaccines to Africa, more than 80 percent of the doses have gone to people in high-income and upper-middle-income countries.

    The WHO says most people in the poorest countries will need to wait another two years before vaccines are available to them.

    For now, for Asumpta, and millions of other Africans, the deck seems stacked. They will keep waiting for their vaccines, while new waves of COVID-19 sweep across the continent, putting their lives at risk.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Isabel Nakirya in Kampala.

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