TORONTO — There are some days where Dr. Emilia Noormahomed gets so anxious about contracting COVID-19 that she feels sick — “like I can’t breathe,” she says. It’s a fear and anxiety shared by many of her colleagues as the death toll of those they know climb each day.
“We are not only seeing health workers dying, physicians die, but also every day we hear about someone that we know who passed away of COVID – every day now. So, it’s really very painful, very sad,” Noormahomed, a microbiologist at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane School of Medicine in Mozambique, told CTV News via video.
COVID-19 is sweeping through her country, with hospitals reaching capacity as the population grapples with a surge in cases. The city of Chimoio announced plans to expand its morgue to accommodate the rising number of COVID-19 deaths.
“Mozambique was once an example of managing Covid-19 in Africa and we were praised for our ability to stop the first wave of infections from Covid-19. But now we are one of the countries with one of the fastest increases in cases in Africa,” its president, Filipe Nyusi, said earlier this month during a presidential address.
Around the world, nearly 195 million shots have been given to protect people against SARS-CoV-2 so far, with medical workers given priority in the majority of cases. But of those shots, 10 countries account for almost 90 per cent of them. And roughly three-quarters have been administered by 10 of the world’s wealthiest countries. More than 115 countries have yet to start immunizations.
This vaccination race has left Africa behind, with most countries on the continent yet to give a single dose. South Africa only just started this week. With very few — if any — medical care workers inoculated, they are dying in regions where they are scarce to begin with.
In Mozambique, at least seven physicians have died, along with an unknown number of nurses. Others are dying in neighbouring Zimbabwe too, like Dr. James Hakim and Dr. David Katzenstein, both of whom died of COVID-19 in late January.
Most of the time, Noormahomed tries to pull herself together, telling herself to be patient, to take the necessary precautionary measures, to try not to get infected. Unlike her friends and colleagues, Noormahomed is not on the front lines, but everyone is still feeling a tremendous amount of stress.
“We get anxious, we get frightened,” she said, adding that some of them have trouble sleeping, while others have developed more serious mental health issues.
A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
In Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, some 140 extra beds have been set up in tents by the city’s main hospital. They are trying to cope with the surge in COVID-19 patients hit with the B.1.351 variant first discovered in South Africa.
“This second wave is hard, it’s getting hard for us,” said Dr. Lucia Chambal, an internal medicine specialist at Hospital Central de Maputo and COVID-19 co-ordinator, over Zoom.
“We can see younger people coming to the hospital. We have people dying in younger age, with no comorbidities so this variant is rare, it’s very, very dangerous.”
Dr. Robert Schooley, who works at UC San Diego, home to a research and training program in Mozambique, has lost friends and colleagues to the disease.
“It’s really a real humanitarian crisis … it’s also having an impact on the health care workers because they’re getting sick,” said Schooley, an infectious disease specialist.
These medical workers are often older, with more experience, but who also have other health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable. They are dying while they wait and it’s unfair, doctors in the region say.
“We need vaccines. We definitely need access as soon as possible,” said Noormahomed.
“The priority should be given to the health professionals to the people in the high risk jobs.”
‘THEY SHOULD NOT BE SO SELFISH’
Health-care workers like Noormahomed are trying to call attention to their plight. They understand that wealthier countries are struggling to contain their own outbreaks, but they do not have limited resources the way developing countries like Mozambique does.
“We don’t have this capacity that they have to go to someone like Pfizer and say, ‘I will buy all doses,’” Noormahomed said.
“So they should not be so selfish. From the amount of dollars they buy, they should share some.”
It’s a vaccine inequity the World Health Organization warned about just weeks earlier by the agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“I need to be blunt. The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure. And the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” he said in January.
“Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritize bilateral deals, going around COVAX, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue. This is wrong.”
The Trudeau government came under heavy criticism earlier this month over its decision to receive 1.9 million vaccine doses from COVAX, a global vaccine initiative involving 180 countries, including Canada, that is meant to guarantee fair and equitable vaccine access to all countries.
Ottawa invested $440 million in COVAX last fall, half to secure up to 15 million doses for Canada, and half to buy vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. It pledged another $75 million on Friday as G7 countries promised to step-up efforts to widen the global vaccine distribution.
Ottawa has also secured more than 400 million vaccine doses from multiple manufacturers, among the largest vaccine procurements per capita in the world. International Aid Minister Karina Gould has said Canada will donate excess vaccines to lower income countries.
Meanwhile, the COVAX program itself has been slow to get off the ground, leaving millions at risk. Some health charities in Mozambique have warned that even with these programs in place, it could take “three to five years” to vaccinate the country against the coronavirus, leaving health-care workers no choice but to keep working on the front lines, unprotected.
“The resilience of their health-care system is so much more fragile than ours, that it wouldn’t take too much more of this to really put them back to where they were 20 years ago in terms of trying to figure out how to pull things together and get the health-care systems going,” said Schooley.
“Unless we control this epidemic everywhere in the world we’re going to still see variants generated … so even if you don’t care about people who live elsewhere and all you care about is yourself — it’s not even good policy to allow these epidemics to go unchecked, and assume that it has no impact on you.”
With files from The Canadian Press