In Namibia, Covid-19 vaccines are halted and hospitals hit capacity

With few shots arriving from Covax, the vaccine sharing initiative, Namibia has turned to Chinese and Russian manufacturers.
With few shots arriving from Covax, the vaccine sharing initiative, Namibia has turned to Chinese and Russian manufacturers.PHOTO: REUTERS

WINDHOEK, NAMIBIA (BLOOMBERG) - In Namibia, which has Africa's fastest-growing Covid-19 epidemic, vaccines are running out, hospitals and mortuaries are overwhelmed and the blame game has begun.

The government, criticised by politicians and medical experts for its response to the pandemic, rolled back a decision to reserve its limited doses for people awaiting a second shot and will now also use the vaccines it has for first-time inoculations, in line with World Health Organisation advice.

"Systems in the hospitals are under severe pressure, including staff who are overworked and not performing at their best," said Dr Gordon Cupido, head of internal medicine at the Katutura State Hospital in the capital, Windhoek.

"The human cost is tremendous, often patients are dying unnoticed."

Namibia is one of a swathe of African nations in the grip of a third wave of coronavirus infections overwhelming the least-vaccinated continent.

While the United States and Britain have fully inoculated at least 45 per cent of their populations, that figure is just 1.1 per cent for Africa.

In Namibia, 0.8 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the week to Monday (June 28), the south-west African nation with a population of about 2.5 million had an infection rate of 4,302 cases per million people, the second-highest rate in the world after Mongolia, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Deaths more than doubled from the week earlier.

Mortuaries across the country are overwhelmed with the increasing number of Covid-19 deaths, putting "even more pressure on the situation", Health Minister Kalumbi Shangula said in an interview.

The surge in cases comes after months of limited infections, prompting criticism that the government opened up the economy to activities such as tourism too quickly.

"The virus gave us enough space and time to prepare our response effectively, but we did not do enough to control it," according to former health minister Bernard Haufiku. "We had no community transmissions nearly for a period of five months."

Doctors including Dr Cupido are calling for a national shutdown as oxygen and personal protective equipment supplies run low.

"The government has a big task because if there were any new measures instituted, the effect will come in only three to four weeks, which is time we do not have," he said. "We never anticipated such a bad situation, mistakes were made."

Neighbouring South Africa on Monday reimposed a ban on alcohol sales and gatherings and closed schools. Namibia's inaction added to the severity of the current wave of infections, Dr Haufiku said.

There is little hope of relief from the vaccinations, which have slowed infection rates in developed countries such as Israel and the US.

Last Saturday, the Health Ministry said that due to a delay in the arrival of doses, no new initial vaccinations would be given and only those who have already had one dose would be eligible.

With few shots arriving from Covax, the vaccine sharing initiative, Namibia has turned to Chinese and Russian manufacturers. Now it says it will vaccinate as many people as it can with initial shots.

Before this weekend's announcement, many Namibians were already being turned away from inoculation centres as demand for the shots surged with the worsening wave of infections.

"I was given a number and told to come back a couple of days later," said Mr Jacob Amagulu, a 34-year-old marketing manager in Windhoek. "It is unfortunate because some would have struggled to get transport money to go and get vaccinated and if they are turned away they do not go back."

The positivity rate for those being tested surged to 46 per cent on Sunday and 45 people died of the disease. The number of deaths from Covid-19 increased to an average of about 83 a week this month from 16 last December.

Outpatient services at Katutura Intermediate Hospital, the biggest in Windhoek, were closed on Monday so that the facility can focus on treating Covid-19 patients.

While officially just fewer than 85,000 Namibians have contracted Covid-19 and 1,400 have died, Dr Shangula said on Monday that many people are dying at home as they resort to unproven remedies and shun hospitals.

"These are hard lessons for us as we are now losing lives because of things such as lack of beds and oxygen supply in many isolation units," Dr Haufiku said. "We did things half-heartedly, hence the current calamity."