A doctor in South Africa who has seen the COVID-19 pandemic push her country’s health-care system to the “breaking point” says nations with large supplies of vaccines should consider sharing them early to protect at-risk people around the world.
“I think the way to stabilize the world most quickly is to vaccinate the high-risk people everywhere first before you move on to the low-risk people,” said Dr. Andrea Mendelsohn, senior medical officer in the Western Cape province’s health department.
“Should Canada be able to vaccinate its entire population before high-risk people or health-care workers in South Africa get access to vaccine stocks? I’d say no. But I mean, there’s obviously nationalism and politics that play into those decisions,” she told The Current’s guest host Catherine Cullen.
The pandemic has hit South Africa harder than anywhere else on the continent. The number of infections shot through the one million mark on Monday, thanks in part to a faster-spreading mutation of the virus, which is separate from another variant discovered in the U.K. Officials have banned alcohol sales and extended a nationwide curfew in response.
Mendelsohn said about 100 patients come to the community health centre where she works every day, some of them with severe symptoms.
She described feeling panicked one day when all five currently available oxygen tanks were being used by patients, and a sixth patient came in requiring oxygen.
“One person who wasn’t as distressed went off the oxygen while we scrounged for another tank, and they were willing to help the person who was in more need. And then we got extra tanks and a delivery came the next day,” she said.
“The ambulances are stretched thin, the hospitals are stretched thin, everyone’s stretched thin… No one should die because they can’t get a little bit of oxygen.”
She added that her community centre staff currently has a COVID-19 positivity rate of about 50 per cent, putting additional strain on their capacity to treat patients.
Canada, which more vaccine doses per capita than any other nation, said it’s in talks with other governments to donate excess doses to lower-income countries, potentially through the World Health Organization-backed COVAX facility.
Mendelsohn called the gesture “fantastic and very commendable,” but cautioned that waiting too long before that happens will lead to more deaths.
Vaccine might turn people into crocodiles, Brazil president muses
In Brazil, health experts are raising the alarm as hospitals are filling up with COVID-positive patients, all while their president, Jair Bolsonaro, spreads misinformation about the virus and vaccine.
Bolsonaro recently said he would not be vaccinated and mockingly suggested that the Pifzer vaccine could turn people into crocodiles, grant people superpowers, or cause women to grow beards, according to AFP.
“The first thing that comes to mind is how the hell did we elect a president that is so disconnected from reality? Because it just keeps getting worse,” said Natalia Pasternak, a microbiologist and president of the Question of Science Institute in Sao Paulo.
Vaccines are the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel. We still have a long way to go.– Natalia Pasternak, microbiologist
Pasternak said that most Brazilians understand the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines and understood the president’s comments as a joke. But “it has implications even when people don’t take him seriously,” she warned.
“When misinformation is institutionalized as it is in Brazil — meaning that it comes directly from the federal government, and from the president, and from the Ministry of Health — it becomes really difficult to fight it.”
Brazil now has nearly 7.5 million confirmed cases, and 191,139 deaths from the virus since the outbreak began, according to data from the Health Ministry. Bolsonaro himself tested positive in July, and has continued to downplay the virus’s severity, likening it to “a little flu.”
Pasternak said hospitals are full, despite a robust public health-care system. She worries that with New Year celebrations possibly coming soon, and people getting tired of quarantine measures, another spike in cases could cause the system to “collapse” in early 2021.
Asked by reporters on Saturday about rising criticism that Brazil’s vaccine rollout has been slow and poorly explained, Bolsonaro said: “Nobody pressures me for anything; I don’t give a damn about it.”
But he pivoted somewhat on Monday, saying that a vaccine would be made available within five days of being approved by federal health regulator Anvisa.
Pasternak, who works in vaccine development, says she’s been excited to see the quick development of counter-COVID measures over the past year. But she worries that Brazil’s government might lag on the eventual rollout of any vaccines that may get approved.
“Vaccines are the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel. We still have a long way to go,” she said.
Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News and Reuters. Produced by Julie Crysler and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.