Mandela National Stadium is usually a football fan and is now a temporary hospital for Covid patients, and although the government says it is intended for patients with mild to moderate cases, the body being removed suggests otherwise.
In the empty spaces around the arena, there are dozens of bed frames without mattresses that are squeezed next to each other in preparation for several patients. The government says it has scaled up the bed capacity to accommodate 1,000 people as it expects the worst.
At the onset of the pandemic, the site was transformed into a mobile health care center, but in the end, only a few asymptomatic cases were sent to the stadium for monitoring.
A sharp increase in cases
According to the country’s president Yoweri Museveni, the second wave has proved deadly than the first, which took place in late 2020.
“In this wave, the intensity of serious and critically ill Covid-19 patients and deaths is higher than what we experienced in the first wave,” Museveni said on Sunday, announcing renewed restrictions.
“In the previous wave, it took us three to four months to get to the current state of critical and severe patients, while in the second wave it has taken us less than two weeks.”
The sharp rise in cases believed to be driven by various variants circulating in the country has surprised public and private hospitals, and many have struggled to meet the constant demand for care.
“The breakthrough was almost within a week,” said Dr. Daniel Talemwa, Medical Director at TMR International Hospital in Kampala. He told CNN that his facility had some time to stockpile supplies, as it did during the first wave.
“We started to see the number in the ICU increase from two to almost 10 at the same time.”
Younger population hardest hit
TMR International Hospital is a small private facility that has been over capacity for the past two weeks. It has scaled up the bed capacity by 50% from eight ICU beds to 12 and is building a new unit.
But even with extra bed space, the biggest challenge is the lack of oxygen, space and medical staff to support patients. The hospital rejects at least 15 desperate and critical patients a day.
One of the few lucky patients admitted was 40-year-old Stephen Ntambi, who had just been taken by a life support machine when CNN met him.
Lying in bed with his wife sitting on a bench nearby, Ntambi threw what he called “tears of joy,” grateful to the doctors for saving his life when he thought he was “half dead.”
“As I feel now, I feel like God has given me a thousand more years,” Ntambi said between strained breaths.
He urged Ugandans to take the virus seriously, saying his second chance has opened his eyes to how “people should not play with their lives ruthlessly.”
His wife Sharon told CNN she never thought the serious form of Covid-19 her husband suffered could happen to anyone his age.
The second wave in Uganda has hit young people hard, according to those between 30 and 39, who are hardest hit, according to the Ministry of Health. Those aged 20-29 have registered the second highest number of positive cases.
“This time we are getting young people who were previously healthy,” said Dr. Erasmus Erebu Okello, an intensivist at TMR.
The youngest patient he treated in critical care was only 18, while the average age was 40. “I think it’s a new strain that is more aggressive than the previous one,” Okello said.
Younger people may have become complacent and started participating in major social functions after the outbreak last year, he added. Preventive measures such as social distance may also have been ignored.
Museveni has threatened to lock the country completely if people defy the current restrictions, while hundreds have been arrested for violations, including being in clubs after the curfew at. 21.00.
Creepy lack of vaccine
Like many African countries, Uganda has a severe shortage of vaccines. It has fewer than 20,000 Covid-19 vaccines left, and less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. The possibility of continuous, more vicious waves looms.
As of Thursday, Uganda recorded the highest single-day rise in infections with 1,438 new reported cases.
The country has reached 56,949 reported cases and 402 deaths. While these numbers are low compared to many other countries around the world, doctors fear that they may increase significantly if cases are not marked.
As only 1.8% of the 42 million people living in Uganda have been vaccinated so far, according to the Ministry of Health, the number is threatening to increase.
Uganda has nearly depleted the 964,000 AstraZeneca shots it received from COVAX, the WHO’s vaccine sharing initiative for low- and middle-income countries.
Additional shipments of COVAX vaccines, which were expected in May, have not yet arrived.
Vaccine purchases have slowed to a halt after the COVAX facility was paralyzed by a stop in shipments from India where most of the vaccines were procured.
“If we got this vaccine at the end of the last wave and at least were able to vaccinate 4.2 million people we were targeting, those who were vulnerable, we would not be going through what we are going through,” says Dr. Diana Atwine, Uganda’s top health official, told CNN.
“Our society would be much, much better than what we are experiencing now,” she said.
Atwine said vaccination nationalism and “storage” of doses from wealthy countries have made it nearly impossible for countries like Uganda to obtain vaccines.
Uganda expects an additional 175,000 AstraZeneca doses from COVAX by June 14. It is also awaiting a donation of 300,000 shots of China’s Sinovac vaccine.
The country wants to buy vaccines from the United States, China, Russia – or anywhere they can get them, according to President Museveni. “If I could access the vaccines, even tomorrow, we would conduct a nationwide campaign and vaccinate,” Atwine said.