‘We will lose more doctors’: Sudan’s health workers plead for Covid jabs

Country has struggled to get vaccines to frontline medical staff, while Covid toll remains under-reported

A Sudanese health worker receives a dose of Covid vaccine at Jabra hospital in Khartoum
A Sudanese health worker receives a dose of Covid vaccine at Jabra hospital in Khartoum. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A Sudanese health worker receives a dose of Covid vaccine at Jabra hospital in Khartoum. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Last modified on Wed 14 Apr 2021 00.09 EDT

More than 200 Sudanese doctors, nurses and medical workers have died from Covid-19, according to sources close to the health ministry – more than three times the official figure.

Like other countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan has struggled to obtain vaccines and distribute them to frontline medical staff. Many of the doctors who have died were senior consultants in their 50s and 60s or older, and so were in high-risk categories.

“Doctors are exhausted and they have to work and go to their clinics despite being elderly in order to pay for their living expenses,” said Manal El-Degair, a Sudanese doctor and member of Jisir, an NGO campaigning in providing vaccines and other medical supplies to Sudan. “If no one acts now to protect them with vaccines, we will lose more doctors in the third wave.”

Other health workers are also suffering. “People tend to focus on doctors but the number of nurses who died is unknown, and that’s a huge loss. With Covid19, the role of nurses is really central,” El-Degair said.

Sudan has registered 32,000 cases and 2,000 deaths, but this is widely believed to reflect only a fraction of the true number of victims. A study published late last year by scientists from Imperial College London’s Covid-19 response team in Sudan found that only about 2% of Covid deaths in the capital, Khartoum, had been reported.

Last month Sudan became the first country in the Middle East and north Africa region to receive vaccine doses through the UN-backed Covax facility, taking delivery of 828,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot.

Though the country has also received a shipment of 250,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, its health minister said recently that the stocks were not enough.

The families of doctors who have died from Covid-19 in Sudan blame local authorities for diverting scarce funds elsewhere, and the international community for hoarding vaccines.

Dr El-Taib El-Naiem, 63 a senior orthopaedic surgeon, is believed to have been exposed to the virus during his contacts with students doctors or possibly at his home when treating poor patients who could not afford to go to hospital.

“My father was always like that … that probably made him vulnerable to the virus as well ” said his son Mahmoud El-Naiem, an NHS doctor who works with Covid-19 patients in London.

Sudan has only three doctors who specialise in intensive care and fewer than 80 ICU beds for 43m inhabitants. There are only 150 dedicated Covid beds in Khartoum, a city of 6 million. The government has banned big gatherings but few people practise social distancing or wear masks.

“Many of our facilities and public hospitals are closed because of a lack of basic supplies, not just PPE or trained staff. That is one reason so many doctors have died,” said a health ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hussain Gasim Abu-Eikar, an emergency doctor at a dedicated clinic treating Covid-19 victims in Khartoum who lost his 63-year-old cousin to the pandemic last week, said many healthworkers in Sudan had no choice but to continue working despite the risks because they had no other way of earning a living.

Thousands of Sudanese doctors are on strike, protesting against work conditions and a failure to pay their salaries for almost a year. Some doctors complained that their families paid for their food and transportation and living expenses. Many hospitals failed to provide them with face masks, they said.

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