Hospitals in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa are “overwhelmed” by a rise in COVID-19 infections, President Felix Tshisekedi said on Saturday, as the country was hit by a third wave of the disease.
Like many African countries, Congo has officially registered relatively few cases. But the virus has killed a number of prominent politicians, and low vaccination rates have left the country vulnerable to more contagious variants.
Health officials recorded 254 confirmed COVID-19 cases on Friday, one of the highest daily totals since the pandemic began. In all, Congo has registered 35,000 cases and 830 deaths.
“I am going to take drastic measures to deal with this upsurge of the disease. We’re talking about the Indian variant in particular,” Tshisekedi told reporters, referring to the Delta variant, which was first discovered in India and is highly infectious.
He did not specify what measures he planned to take.
Congo delayed its vaccination campaign by more than a month because of concerns about very rare side effects from the AstraZeneca shot. Since the campaign finally started on April 19, fewer than 30,000 doses have been administered.
“You know very well that the AstraZeneca vaccine has been and continues to be problematic, both in terms of side effects but also in terms of trust with the population,” Tshisekedi said.
International drug regulators have said the benefits of using vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson outweigh risks as they investigate reports of extremely rare, but potentially fatal blood clots.
Experts say that in Congo, scarce testing means cases and deaths are likely to be heavily understated by official numbers. They also say hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with a fresh wave of the virus.
“There is a big problem with (the supply of) oxygen in Kinshasa,” said Pascal Lutumba from the tropical medicine department at the University of Kinshasa.
“In Kinshasa, they don’t care about COVID-19, they don’t believe in it, that’s the big issue,” he said, referring to the city’s population.