Rising cases of coronavirus in Africa threaten to overrun fragile healthcare systems and test the continent’s much-touted resilience to the disease, according to the World Health Organization’s regional office for the continent.
The global health body stated that infections were on the rise in at least 12 countries in Africa including Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya and Guinea.
Across the continent, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are stretched to the limit as the total cumulative number of infections this week rose above 4.1m, with more than 110,000 fatalities, a sharp rise on the 2.7m infections recorded at the end of December. South Africa leads with more than 1.5m reported cases and more than 52,000 deaths.
The WHO said only 7 million people had now been vaccinated in a continent of more than a billion people.
The second wave of Covid-19, which began towards the end of 2020, hit African countries more aggressively, with a 30% rise in infections compared with the first wave. However, fewer public health measures were implemented than in the first wave, according to a study this week in the Lancet medical journal.
By the end of 2020, the continent had recorded 3-4% of the global total of Covid-19 cases – and more than 65,000 deaths. But some scientists now worry that a significant underestimate of the true picture could distort the detection of new variants.
In Kenya, positivity rates are up to at least 20% and the country has some 123,000 reported cases with 14,000 cases reported this month alone. More than 2,000 Kenyans have died from the disease since March 2020.
The government and medical personnel have now sounded alarm bells, warning Kenyans of a tough time ahead. “We are in the third wave of this virus, and it’s a wave that threatens to erase all the gains we have made as a country in fighting the pandemic over the last one year,” Kenya’s health ministry tweeted, amid reports that all the country’s intensive-care unit beds had been filled by Covid-19 patients and doctors had fallen ill with the virus themselves.
Alfred Mutua, governor of Machakos county, said all ICU and high-dependency unit beds as well as all oxygen points in his area were at full capacity with Covid-19 patients. “People are waiting for others to die to get a bed,” he tweeted.
The WHO said there were inadequate facilities for testing and isolation and that healthcare workers were now bearing the brunt of the pandemic through “work overload, poor infection prevention and control measures”. Healthcare worker infections account for 3.5% of the total number of Covid-19 cases in Africa.
“Covid-19 has heavily jolted the health workforce in the African region. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 267 health worker infections have been recorded on average every day, translating to 11 new health worker infections per hour,” the WHO.
The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union urged citizens to be cautious when visiting medical facilities. “The acute shortage of doctors across the country is detrimental to health services delivery amidst the pandemic. This month has recorded an increase in healthcare workers’ infection, there are currently 10 doctors admitted in various facilities across the country and this indicates the need for extra precaution by members of the public,” it said in a statement.
The situation was exacerbated by some healthcare workers’ reluctance to be vaccinated in what the KMPDU said was a lack of “sensitisation and awareness” among staff.
In neighbouring Tanzania, where the WHO last month called the situation “very concerning”, the government has yet to report on Covid-19 situation, with analysts hoping the new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, will now step up action. The former president, John Magufuli, died this month and had repeatedly trivialised the threat from the disease, instead promoting prayer and herbs as a cure. There was much speculation that Magufuli had contracted the disease when he disappeared from public view.
Tanzania has lost several prominent people to Covid, including Seif Sharif Hamad, first vice-president of Zanzibar, in February. He had earlier disclosed that he had tested positive for Covid-19.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.
During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?
In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021. Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.
The story of al-Jalaa tower
The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.
Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi
Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.
The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.
Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.
After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.
The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.
As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.
Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi
Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”
Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?
“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”
Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:
“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”
Joe Dyke heads the investigation team at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars Anas Baba is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Gaza