Wednesday September 22, 2021

UK to start Covid vaccine booster programme; Mauritius battles Covid-19 explosion

AFP
September 15, 2021

Port Louis, Mauritius: Hospitals are overwhelmed in Mauritius, ventilators are hard to find, and there’s no longer enough space at the main cemetery for Covid victims.

Less than three weeks before it flings its doors wide open to international travellers at the start of the peak tourist season, the paradise island nation is struggling with an alarming explosion in coronavirus infections and deaths.

In just two months, cases have jumped over five-fold to more than 12,600 as of Friday, by far the largest increase across Africa during the same period, according to data compiled by AFP. Since the pandemic started, Mauritius has recorded 1,005 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 inhabitants, far higher than the continent’s average of 598.

The crisis is now so acute that 74-year-old former prime minister Navin Ramgoolam has flown to India for Covid treatment, and the opposition leader has told of his struggle to find a bed for an ailing friend.

"People do not realise how bad the situation is," said one nurse at a Covid treatment centre, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of possible reprisals. "We are already above capacity."

In July, the idyllic Indian Ocean holiday destination, renowned for its white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, partly reopened to vaccinated international visitors. But they had to remain in "resort bubbles" for 14 days before being allowed to venture further afield, provided they had a negative PCR test.

The government reduced that timeframe to seven days this month ahead of a full reopening planned for October 1, when vaccinated tourists will be free to explore the island as long as they test negative up to 72 hours before arrival.

But in another blow to the tourism industry, the US Centers for Disease Control added Mauritius to its list of high-risk Covid destinations, saying travellers should "avoid" the country.

"The situation is worsening," one doctor said on condition of anonymity, adding that medical professionals had been instructed not to talk about the crisis. "The priority of the government is to ensure a smooth opening of the borders on October 1."

The government has not given any explanation for the surge, but local media reports speak of people ignoring social distancing guidelines and throwing caution to the wind after getting inoculated. The authorities had ordered people in some sectors to have Covid jabs or risk hefty fines and jail terms of up to five years.

As of Saturday, 61 percent of the population was fully vaccinated. But the pandemic picture remains bleak. Bernard, a worker at the leafy Bigara cemetery, said the area reserved for coronavirus victims was already full.

The dead are now being laid to rest at another graveyard, but locals are furious, saying Covid-19 victims are being buried too close to their homes. L’Express newspaper reported that police had to be summoned last week when youths began throwing stones at health workers burying the dead at Bois-Marchand cemetery.

The authorities have been slow to paint a clear picture of the death toll, and announced a sharp revision to official figures Friday, from 34 to 89. The health ministry explained its initial calculations by saying the majority of the 89 fatalities were due to comorbidities and not directly caused by Covid-19.

Locals are conflicted about the relaxation of restrictions, with tourism contributing 25 percent of gross domestic product before the pandemic. "We had closed the country but despite this the number of cases exploded," said taxi driver Paul Pierre, who said the prospect of a tourist surge made him "shudder".

Hotel receptionist Diana Mootoosamy echoed his fears, telling AFP: "Suddenly we find ourselves without a safety net. "By welcoming tourists, are we going to attract foreign exchange or (Covid-19) variants?"

Others say the economy, which shrank 15 percent in the last financial year, desperately needs the boost. "My restaurant has been empty since March 2020. If the tourists don’t come back, I’ll have to put the key under the doormat," restaurateur John Beeharry told AFP.

The country’s healthcare system is struggling to cope. Opposition leader Xavier Duval rang alarm bells over a "traumatic" hunt earlier this month for a hospital bed with a ventilator for a close friend.

With family members in tears, Duval tried several private clinics and the main hospital with no luck, before one centre agreed to admit his friend -- but only for 48 hours. "All this indicates that the system is overwhelmed," he said, calling the situation "alarming".

"I’m afraid Mauritius will come to a stage where we might need to decide who will get the air supply and who will have to die."Meanwhile, frontline health and social care workers, older people and the clinically vulnerable in Britain will start to receive a booster jab against Covid 19 from next week, the government said on Tuesday.

Health minister Sajid Javid told parliament he had approved a recommendation from advisory body the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to start the programme. He also approved a controversial proposal to offer jabs to children aged 12-15 as concern mounts about the spread of the virus in schools.

JCVI chairman Wei Shen Lim earlier said the programme would be introduced to provide extra protection as the winter months approach. Covid infection rates remain stubbornly high in Britain, despite a mass vaccination programme that has seen some 81 percent of all adults receive two doses of a vaccine.

In a related development, President Vladimir Putin will self-isolate after coronavirus cases were detected in his inner circle, the Kremlin said on Tuesday, as Russia struggles with stubbornly high Covid infection rates.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin was "absolutely healthy". When asked whether Putin had taken a coronavirus test and if it was negative, Peskov replied: "Undoubtedly".

Putin had been due to travel to Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe for a regional summit later this week but in a call with President Emomali Rakhmon said he would not be able to attend in person. "Putin said that in connection with identified coronavirus cases in his circle, he will observe a self-isolation regime for a certain period of time," the Kremlin said in a statement.