Africa’s Health Systems Under Intense Pressure as COVID-19 Deaths Increase by 43% in One Week
Ghana, Africa
Ghanian health worker Evelyn Narkie Dowuona holds up her vaccination card after being vaccinated in March, but vaccine supplies to the continent have virtually dried up.

Africa experienced a 43% week-on-week increase in COVID-19 deaths, as the Delta variant accelerated infections for the eighth week in a row, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported at its weekly Africa press briefing.

Hospital admissions increase rapidly and countries face shortages in oxygen and intensive care beds, as the Africa hit six million cumulative COVID cases – riding the worst wave ever of the pandemic on the continent.

New infections in Africa’s third wave outsrip previous peaks, according to the latest data from Africa Centres for Diseae Control, with southern and northern Africa as the epicenters.

Infections are now moving at an unprecedented speed, health officials warned. Over the past month, the continent registered an additional one million cases whereas it took around three months for the previous million cases to be cases to recorded.

“Deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

Moeti noted that countries are facing dire shortages of the health workers, supplies, equipment and infrastructure needed to provide care to severely ill COVID-19 patients.

Some 20% of Namibia’s Hospital Cases in ICU

Namibian physician, Dr Ismael Katjitae


Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia accounted for 83% of the new deaths recorded in the past week. The proportion of deaths among confirmed cases reported in Africa is 2.6% against the global average of 2.2%. 

Namibian physician Dr Ismael Katjitae, told the briefing that over 20% of Namibia’s hospitalised COVID-19 cases are in intensive care units (ICU), with one-half of hospitalised patients concentrated in Windhoek, the country’s capital city.

“This has resulted in a very high bed occupancy rate that is beyond the capacity of the healthcare system. There has been an associated spike in the number of deaths, with approximately 1000 deaths in the last month,” Katjitae said.

He revealed that the Delta variant is a major contributor to the high number of COVID deaths in the country.

“With a high number of new infections within a short period of time, it has resulted in a high number of severe and critically ill patients,” he added.

Other contributors to the high number of COVID-19 deaths in Namibia, Katjitae said, also include the high prevalence of comorbidities in some communities, limited capacity of the health system in some districts and regions, and misinformation.

DRC’s Cases Rise Almost 500% in Five Weeks

Dr Jean-Jacques Mbungani Mbanda, the DRC’s Minister of Public Health

The situation in DR Congo is similar to that in Namibia, according to Dr Jean-Jacques Mbungani Mbanda, the DRC’s Minister of Public Health. Mbanda, who also addressed the WHO press briefing, noted that the country had gone from 448 cases after 21 weeks to 2,660 cases during the 25th week. 

“This is an impressive increase of 481% in five weeks. We have overtaken the peaks of the previous two waves,” the minister said.

He added that about 32% of hospitalised COVID-19 patients were severely ill and required oxygen. 

“The number one priority for African countries is boosting oxygen production to give critically ill patients a fighting chance,” Dr Moeti said. “Effective treatment is the last line of defence against COVID-19 and it must not crumble.”

She noted that insufficient quantity, disrepair or poor maintenance of production plants as well as challenges in distribution, scarcity of cylinders, personnel or technical skills were barriers to adequate medical oxygen supply in Africa.

Mbanda also revealed that comorbidities are contributing to COVID-19 deaths in the country. He said DRC has recorded over 150 patients with at least one comorbidity, or co-infection such as high blood pressure, diabetes and so on. The majority of (about 110) are in Kinshasa.

“This third wave came about after confinement measures were taken. But then, once they were eliminated, we had protection measures that were revised, and then the situation became worse because of the Delta variant,” the minister said. 

While vaccine acceptance was a challenge, demand for the vaccine was rising, said Mbanda. He called on Gavi, WHO, UNICEF and other partners to support the country with more vaccine doses to enable the country to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and reduce the pressure on the country’s healthcare system.

“Vaccination is the only way to reduce the extent of the disease, and to also limit the number of deaths and morbidity,” the minister said.

Urgent Need for Vaccines

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

While vaccine delivery is rising in Asia, Africa still faces woefully inadequate vaccine supplies. So far only 52 million of the continent’s 1.3 billion people have been vaccinated, since rollout began in March 2021 in South Africa and with the first deliveries of vaccines to Ghana, by the WHO co-sponsored COVAX global vaccine facility initiative. 

African vaccinations account for only 1.6% of the 3.5 billion people vaccinated worldwide, although Africans constitute 17% of the world’s population. Moreover, only 18 million people on the continent have been fully vaccinated, 1.5% of the continent’s population, although some countries in the North have fully immunised more than 50% of their people.  

 “The double barrier of vaccine scarcity and treatment challenges is seriously undermining effective response to the surging pandemic,” said Dr Moeti. “However, with the expected fresh vaccine shipments and strong preventive measures, we can still turn the tide against the virus.”

The WHO said Africa needs 190 million additional COVID-19 vaccine doses to fully vaccinate 10% of the African population by the end of September, with around 750 million more doses needed to fully vaccinate 30% of the continent’s population by the end of 2021.

Health Policy Watch recently reported that Africa will pivot sharply away from Covishield, the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII), and towards the Johnson & Johnson one-shot alternative in coming months – with a new deal to procure some 400 million J&J doses produced by the South Africa-based Aspen Pharmacare, which is due to begin deliveries in August. Along with that, US-donated Pfizer vaccines are reportedly set to reach some African countries even this month, the White House has said, although uptake of those vaccines will be limited to cities and hospitals that can manage the vaccine’s ultra-cold storage requirements. 

Image Credits: WHO.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.