Africa: Countries in a Panic Over Ventilators

It was bound to happen. The coronavirus outbreak has tested the global capacity to deal with one of the worst epidemics this century leaving healthcare systems worldwide in limbo.

While African countries have yet to go through the horrid phase of its spread, developed countries in Europe and the US have intensified the search for ventilators as public health systems get overwhelmed.

Ventilators are critical for the treatment of the coronavirus and are designed to put oxygen into the lungs of patients in danger of lung failure. In Italy, due to lack of capacity, medical staff have been prioritising patients with the highest chances of survival.


Most of the companies making ventilators abroad have cancelled export orders, meaning that countries like Kenya will be grappling with a crisis deeper than that experienced by wealthier nations.

For instance, German manufacturer Drägerwerk AG now says that the 10,000 orders by the federal government would be stretched over the entire year, which means they won't have the capacity to make ventilators for export.

It also emerged that Germany was one of the best prepared in tackling the pandemic and had 28,000 intensive care unit beds. Of these, some 25,000 were already equipped with ventilators.

Epidemiologists say that Germany has been able to stem the deaths by tracking and containing the early clusters. The UK has about 4,000 intensive care beds and only 20 per cent are free.

The fear in many African countries is that if the trajectory observed in China, Italy, US and Spain happens, the health crisis will snowball into a disaster.

In Spain, for instance, the number of patients has surpassed the national capacity of ICU beds. The country had 4,400 beds and healthcare workers are being forced to choose between who to treat and who to let die. Spain has recorded 6,528 deaths while Italy, the new epicentre of the virus, has 10,779 deaths.

Data from the Johns Hopkins University says the US is currently leading with the number of infections at 143,055 followed by Italy (97,689), Spain (85,195) and China (82,198).


With 97,689 confirmed cases, Italy appears to have the highest death rate on the planet with 10,779. Experts have blamed Italy's death-rate on the country's large elderly population. It is also being blamed on the method of testing and failure to get the complete picture.

Dr Massimo Galli, head of the infectious diseases unit at Sacco Hospital in Milan, told reporters that Italy's number of confirmed cases is "not representative of the entire infected population" and the real figure is "much, much more." The Italian surge is also being blamed on poor response.

"The state-of-emergency declarations were shrugged off by the public and political leaders. They were slow to implement strict social distancing measures and, even once officials began to institute social distancing as Covid-19 cases began to spike, the public did not seem to respond to government directives with urgency," observed one journalist.

While most of these numbers are now pointing to the level of preparedness, the world has been shocked that the crisis has shaken even India, previously thought to be a leader in medical tourism. The country has about 1 doctor per 1,500 citizens while World Health Organization recommends 1 doctor per 1,000. In rural areas, where most people live, it is more than 10,000.


"Our ICU and ventilator facilities are too inadequate to manage any sudden spurt in demand," Sujatha Rao, a former secretary of health, told US-based National Public Radio.

With a population of 1.3 billion, India's main problem is quality and scarcity of testing with fears that with its high population social distancing is turning into a nightmare. India still has one of the lowest testing rates in the world and Prime Minister Modi has been forced to order a lockdown to contain the crisis.

In the US, the worst-hit New York City found it had only 2.7 intensive care unit beds per 10,000 people, according to an analysis of federal medicare and medicaid data by Columbia University's Adam Sacarny and The Washington Post.

But the country does not have enough ventilators and the projections from the Society of Critical Care Medicine indicate that, if the virus continues to spread, some 4.8 million patients would need hospitalisation and 1.9 million would require admission to ICU. The country has an estimated 100,000 ventilators.

It is this panic that is worrying many countries because none of them has the capacity to cope when numbers overwhelm the system. This is more so because the ventilators are the difference between recovery and death for critical cases.


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