Africa is facing a “perfect storm” of Covid-19, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, has warned, with cases surging by almost 2,000 per cent in just a month in some parts of the continent.
It is an “urgent, vital necessity” to increase vaccine supply to Africa as the delta variant begins to take hold, Mr Blair wrote in the foreword of a new report, published on Tuesday.
However, other leading figures said that the focus for the short-term needs to shift away from vaccines to dealing with the acute emergency unfolding in many African countries.
Vaccines could help prevent another wave of infections but are too late to stop the “India-scenario” already sweeping across Africa, according to Dr Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance.
Instead, countries need oxygen, treatments, testing and field hospitals, she said.
Nations including South Africa and Uganda have already sounded the alarm about rising infections and overwhelmed hospitals, and on Friday Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization Africa director, said that the continent was facing its worst week in the pandemic so far.
New cases have been rising across Africa for six weeks in a row, and went up by 25 per cent to almost 202,000 in the week ending 27 June, close to the peak in the second wave in January.
The continent-wide picture obscures astonishing growth in certain countries: cases have rocketed in Mozambique, Rwanda and Malawi by 172 per cent, 138 per cent and 110 per cent respectively in the last two weeks alone.
Uganda has seen a 2,000 per cent increase in the last month, figures from Mr Blair’s Institute for Global Change showed.
Deaths are going up, too: by 23 per cent in the last week on average, and 80 per cent in the last month.
Liberia, Rwanda, Kenya and Mozambique have seen the biggest jumps, up by 380 per cent, 217 per cent, 202 per cent and 186 per cent respectively in the last two weeks.
By the middle of June, Liberian hospitals were full and turning patients away.
Namibia is building two field hospitals.
In South Africa, people are buying oxygen cylinders online to keep at home in case of emergency, as the health system is overwhelmed.
The delta variant is believed to be responsible for much of the new, third wave, but the picture is unclear in a number of countries as testing – let alone genomic sequencing – is sparse.
Africa is not unique in facing the threat of the delta variant, as the graph below shows. First identified in India, where it caused devastation, the variant's spread in countries from the UK to Thailand has sparked fresh outbreaks.
However, Africa remains the least vaccinated region in the world, with only around one per cent of the population fully vaccinated.
Describing the delta variant as a “game changer”, Mr Blair warned: “The speed and scale of the third wave of Covid-19 is unprecedented in Africa, and it risks overwhelming health systems across the continent, with extremely serious consequences for lives and livelihoods.”
In a foreword to a briefing from the institute on the pandemic in Africa, Mr Blair said that other countries must step up.
“There is now an absolutely urgent, vital necessity for the world to step up vaccine supply to Africa. We know all the reasons why vaccines promised have not been delivered. But the longer this unacceptable situation continues, not only Africa but the whole world is at risk.”
However, Dr Alakija – who has been calling for vaccines in Africa for months – said that while vaccines remain critical in the longer-term, the focus now needs to be on dealing with the emergency.
“We are in acute emergency mode – we need to prepare oxygen, field hospitals, health workers, declare humanitarian emergencies in countries where the systems are overwhelmed, and have surge capacity people coming in if needs be,” she said.
She said that the pandemic in Africa was “silent”, with people suffering or dying at home
“In India we had the burning funeral pyres that the whole world looked at in horror,” she said.
“This is like watching bodies slide under water, a silent mass drowning where people are reaching their hands up for help but no-one is watching and nobody can see.”