Alarm grows in Africa as it watches India's COVID-19 crisis

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FILE In this Jan. 11, 2021 file photo a patient wearing an oxygen mask is treated in a makeshift emergency unit at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Africa is "watching with total disbelief" as India struggles with a devastating resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the continent's top public health official said Thursday April 29, 2021, as African officials worry about delays in vaccine deliveries caused by India's crisis. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe/File)

NAIROBI – Africa is “watching with total disbelief” as India struggles with a devastating resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the continent’s top public health official said Thursday, as African officials worry about delays in vaccine deliveries caused by India’s crisis.

The African continent, with roughly the same population as India and fragile health systems, “must be very, very prepared” since a similar scenario could happen here, John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.

“What is happening in India cannot be ignored by our continent,” he said, and urged African countries to avoid mass gatherings including political rallies. “We do not have enough health care workers, we do not have enough oxygen,” he warned.

Africa’s vaccine supply heavily relies on India, whose Serum Institute is the source of the AstraZeneca vaccines distributed by the global COVAX project to get doses to low- and middle-income countries. India’s export ban on vaccines “has severely impacted the predictability of the rollout of vaccination programs and will continue to do so for the coming weeks and perhaps months,” Nkengasong said.

“We are living in a world that is extremely uncertain now,” he added.

Just 17 million vaccine doses have been administered across the African continent for a population of some 1.3 billion, according to the Africa CDC.

The situation in India is “very sad to observe,” the World Health Organization’s Africa chief told reporters in a separate briefing. “We are very concerned about the delays that are coming in the availability of vaccines,” Matshidiso Moeti added.

Her WHO colleague, Phionah Atuhebwe, called the delay “quite devastating for everybody” and said most African nations that received their first vaccine doses via COVAX will reach a “gap” in supply while waiting for second doses as early as May or June.