The African ventilator dilemna


The WHO estimates there are less than 2000 ventilators within the 41 countries that have thus far reported cases of COVID-19 in Africa.

A UN Economic Commission for Africa report raised a warning on the exposure of the African continent to the COVID-19 pandemic. It estimates a death toll of 300,000 people and an additional 30 million pushed to the brink of poverty.

With over 19,000 infections and 1000-plus fatalities, the situation is further exacerbated by the shortage or complete lack of ventilators in several African countries.

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Thus far, South Africa has the most number of ventilators given its advanced medical infrastructure. South Sudan is the world’s newest nation of 11 million people and is mired with conflict that has not only impoverished its citizens but hampered the provision of basic services. The country has only 4 ventilators, only one ahead of the Central African Republic and Liberia who have 3 each.

As of 18th April, Somalia is yet to have a single ventilator. However, Abdirizak Yusuf, overseeing their health ministry response, remains optimistic that 200 ICU beds and a few ventilators will be made available soon. Surprisingly, there are 10 other countries within Africa that have no ventilators at all. In Burkina Faso, there are only 11 ventilators for a population of 20 million people. It gets worse to learn that Nigeria, whose population of 200 million is two-thirds of the United States, has less than 100 ventilators. 

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Chinese billionaire Jack Ma had made a generous donation to the continent of 500 ventilators which were distributed among the affected countries. Medical officials are confident that the ventilator numbers should rise as promised donations arise. However, there does not seem to be adequate anesthesiologists or medical staff with the right training or know-how on how to intubate patients. That poses the dilemma that African countries will be unable to handle the most severe cases in the event of a massive outbreak. 

Not all African countries have disclosed their ventilator situation for fear of the political ramifications domestically. If the public knows that they have none, it can bring about lots of problems. The price of ventilators in the international markets has shot up, costing as much as $25000, and vendors are the ones calling the shots.

Thus far, Africa will probably reap the benefits of having a youthful population. The median age of 18.9 lovers their chances of fatal outcomes when infected unlike other continents with elderly populations. Other arguments attribute the low African infections to the warmer weather. Despite all the different assumptions and opinions, studies are still ongoing so the only trusted source at the moment is the World Health Organization.

On the bright side, South Africa plans on producing over 10,000 ventilators locally by the end of June. The government is evaluating proposals from organizations and businesses through the ministry of Trade and Industry.