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Uganda's strict restrictions kept the first wave of the pandemic at bay – but now infections are spiking. Photo Sally Hayden /SOPA Images

 

Nine doctors have died of Covid-19 in Uganda in the last fortnight, as a devastating new wave of coronavirus infections sweeps over the country.

New cases have risen by 49 per cent in the last week in the country, by 8,574, or 18.7 per 100,000, according to the World Health Organization’s weekly epidemiological report – one of the highest figures in Africa, the only part of the world currently reporting rising infections. It comes on top of a 131 per cent increase in cases last week, too. 

Amid reports that hospitals are running out of beds and oxygen, The Observer newspaper on Wednesday said the Ugandan government was considering appealing for oxygen supplies to help save lives.  

Public health experts said the country was looking increasingly like the next India, which saw hundreds of thousands die as the health system collapsed earlier this year under its second wave. 

“Just like wild fire sweeping here! Oh, God!” tweeted Professor Peter Waiswa, a leading public health expert at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, accompanied by an image paying tribute to the nine doctors who have died. 

He told The Telegraph: “I think we are setting up an India situation where the health system is overwhelmed.” 

Professor Waiswa said he knows of many medical professionals who are sick, alongside members of his extended family. His sister-in-law died of Covid-19 on Wednesday. 

“Although the government is reporting less than 500 deaths so far since the pandemic began, I think right now we can no longer count them,” he said. “People are no longer dying in hospital, they are dying all over.” 

The latest numbers from the government suggest that 49 people died in the last 24 hours, but there are fears the numbers are higher, and rising. Official estimates suggest there have been 64,521 cases and 459 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Professor Waiswa said the jump in cases was caused by a combination of things, including new variants, such as the Delta variant first identified in India. That has come alongside a loss of focus on tackling the pandemic after the country did well in the first wave and then held elections, he said.  

A new lockdown was declared last week, but it was done hastily, meaning that many children at boarding schools - where there have been rising infections – headed home without notice, potentially spreading coronavirus into every corner of the country.

Vaccines are also scarce in Uganda, as in a number of countries in Africa, one of the key reasons the WHO has recently warned of the risks of a third wave hitting the continent.  

By the start of this week in Uganda, only around 900,000 jabs had been administered – covering less than 1.8 per cent of its 44 million people - and only 4,129 people were fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. 

The country’s 150,000 health workers were prioritised in the initial roll-out, but delays in the Covax scheme, which Uganda is relying on for its vaccines, mean that second doses have been hard to come by. Professor Waiswa said there had also been some hesitancy among healthcare workers. 

The loss of medical professionals is devastating in a country which has so few doctors. There are just 0.168 doctors per 1,000 people in the country, compared to nearly 2.812 in the UK. 

The nine doctors were described as “fallen comrades in the line of duty” by the Uganda Medical Association, which announced the deaths.

They included people like Dr Alex Mulindwa, a 33-year old physician with Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Foundation, Uganda, who worked in a number of volunteer projects and who leaves behind a wife and two-year-old daughter. 

“Covid is gripping the nation of Uganda, taking invaluable community leaders like Dr Mulwinda,” said the Circle of Friends In Action non-governmental organisation. “What a fine young doctor gone too soon.”  

Dr Betty Mpeka, a leading malaria specialist at the Malaria Consortium, also died of Covid-19 last week. 

Professor Waiswa, who advises the Ugandan government on vaccines, said that healthcare workers were increasingly concerned about the dangers, and keen for jabs, but doses had effectively run out in the country. Covax is planning to deliver more doses and the Ugandan government has also raised money to buy vaccines in its own right, too, he said, but in the meantime, things look challenging.  

“I can’t see a way that we can come out of this as of now,” he said. “Because people can’t distance [as many have to leave the house to work], we don’t have the vaccine, and the hospitals are full.

"I think we are praying for some kind of natural process – as happens with epidemics – that this wave will go maybe in three months time or so. That is the only thing.” - , The Telegraph

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