5 min read.Updated: 05 Jul 2021, 05:40 PM ISTJON EMONT, The Wall Street Journal
Sparsely vaccinated developing countries have been left exposed while shots protect wealthy nations from surges in hospitalizations and deaths
The fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus is driving up infections around the world, both in countries that have achieved large-scale vaccination and those that haven’t. There is one crucial difference, though: Vaccines are helping wealthy nations escape steep rises in severe cases and deaths while developing countries short on shots battle deadly surges.
Indonesia, where Covid-19 cases have reached new highs, has reported about 500 deaths a day in the past week—almost triple the daily levels recorded in early June—data from its health ministry shows. Authorities are racing to add hospital beds as medical workers in parts of the country face shortages of ventilators and isolation rooms. Patients are traveling for hours for proper medical care, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which runs a hospital in West Java province and recently set up emergency tents on-site to accommodate the flow.
“Every day we are seeing this Delta variant driving Indonesia closer to the edge of a Covid-19 catastrophe," Jan Gelfand, who leads the group’s delegation in the country, said recently. “We need lightning-fast action globally so that countries like Indonesia have access to the vaccines needed to avert tens of thousands of deaths."
In the U.K., by contrast, the variant is dominant and has pushed reported daily cases up by 67% in the past week compared with the week before, but deaths are down 1.6%, government data shows. Israel, another wealthy nation with high inoculation levels, has reported small new outbreaks but just one fatality in the last two weeks of June, according to data from the World Health Organization. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., where the variant is highly prevalent, says that vaccines are effective against it. “If you look at the share of the population fully vaccinated in the United States and world-wide, they’re dramatically different, as is the dynamics of infection," he said.
The divergence is the result of months of inequitable vaccine supply that has left the developing world exposed. The U.S. and U.K. have fully inoculated about half their populations, but across the African continent, just over 1% of people have been fully vaccinated. Mortuaries in Zambia are full and patients are dying in hospital hallways in South Africa waiting for care.
The normally bustling streets of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, have been silenced by a lockdown. WHO data shows deaths in the last week of June, numbering 716, were nearly three times higher than the first week. In India, where the Delta variant was first detected and contributed to a massive surge in April and May, around 4% of people have been fully vaccinated. Indonesia has double-dosed around 5% of its population, according to data from the country’s health ministry.
Like many developing countries, Indonesia has struggled to compete with wealthier nations in securing sufficient shots for its 270 million people, with most of its current supply coming from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. It has ordered vaccines produced by Western companies Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE and Novavax Inc. but doesn’t expect to receive them until August and September. Japan recently donated about a million doses of AstraZeneca PLC’s vaccine to Indonesia and the U.S. has pledged four million doses of Moderna Inc.’s shot—small volumes for the world’s fourth most-populous country.
There are signs of growing demand for shots as cases rise. In Tangerang, a suburb of the capital Jakarta, long lines formed outside a vaccination center in late June and police were dispatched to enforce social distancing. Local authorities later decreed that vaccines would only be available to the area’s residents as they sought to dissuade people from surrounding neighborhoods from crowding the facility.
Indonesia’s government, which had long resisted tighter Covid-19 restrictions, on Thursday announced new curbs for hard-hit areas on the islands of Java and Bali, including limiting export-oriented factories to 50% of staff for 2½ weeks. Schools have moved online and places of worship and malls have closed in these areas, which include major cities such as Jakarta and Bandung.
“In recent days, the Covid-19 pandemic has progressed extremely quickly, because of the new variant," said President Joko Widodo in a speech. “The situation requires us to take firmer steps."
Delta is estimated to be at least twice as contagious as the original version of the virus and is now present in 85 countries. Indonesian authorities have detected it on each of the archipelago’s four most-populous islands—Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan—and the country’s weak healthcare system is straining to cope. Indonesia has half as many doctors per capita as India and Thailand, according to the WHO.
As head of the emergency room at Muhammadiyah Lamongan Hospital in East Java province, Dr. Corona Rintawan said he recently had to decide which of his four patients who were struggling to breathe would get the last-remaining intensive-care bed. He picked a 60-year-old with no major underlying ailments over the three others, one of whom had kidney disease and two were elderly. Two of the three died of respiratory failure at the hospital, he said.
“I chose the one who most likely can be saved," he said.
A hospital in the province of Banten is fielding calls from families across nearby metropolitan Jakarta who are desperate for beds for their sick relatives, said Dr. Ririek Andri, an emergency-room doctor there. Isolation rooms are full and Covid-19 patients are being crowded into what space can be found on the hospital floor. “What else are we to do?" he said.
Late last month, volunteers from civil-society group LaporCovid-19 called 95 hospitals in the Jakarta area in search of an intensive-care bed for a 59-year-old who needed a ventilator. None of the hospitals were able to help and the patient died shortly thereafter, the group said. The group, which collects district-level data on Covid-19’s spread, said on Thursday it could no longer assist families looking for hospital beds because of widespread shortages.
“It likely hasn’t yet reached its peak," said co-founder Ahmad Arif. “But the situation is already extremely concerning."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text
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