Watch CBS News

Vaccination delays leave deadly 3rd wave of COVID to cripple South Africa's hospitals

Third COVID-19 wave hits fragile South Africa
Spike from Delta variant hits South Africa in the wake of civil unrest 03:07

Johannesburg — The coronavirus pandemic is still hammering countries where vaccination rates are very low. Among the hardest hit right now is South Africa, where first responders are working around the clock as hospitals run out of room amid a deadly third wave of COVID-19 infections.

While South Africa has ramped up its inoculation drive, CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports that the late start and recent delays caused by political upheaval have left only about 3% of the population to get fully vaccinated so far. The shots came too late to stem the death toll from the third wave, which is being driven by the Delta variant. 

The incessant wailing of ambulance sirens is the soundtrack as the virus rages through the mostly-unvaccinated country yet again.

Paramedic Mohammed Rasool hasn't had a day off in more than two months.  The calls come in all day long and every call out requires urgent hospital care, but space is running out.

"Hospital beds are full," he told Patta. "No ICU beds. It's quite bad at the moment." 

A COVID-19 patient lies in bed in a non-profit COVID-19 care facility in Norwood, Johannesburg, South Africa, July 12, 2021. EMMANUEL CROSET/AFP/Getty

As he pulled up with yet another patient, badly in need of medical oxygen like all the others, he took his place in the line with the other ambulances outside the hospital, and the wait for a bed began. 

Patta visited one hospital this week that was completely overwhelmed, with not a single ICU bed available. She saw a critically ill patient left to either wait outside for a bed to become available, or try a different hospital. 

For Rasool's latest patient, there were tears of relief as a space opened up. More often than not, that means another patient has died.       

Oxygen is in desperately short supply. The state-run hospital that Patta visited gets at least 50 cannisters delivered every day, but it's not enough.

To supplement the shortage, an emergency field hospital was set up by volunteers to give people gasping for breath a break. It was full within hours of opening. 

Africa facing COVID-19 vaccine shortage as cases rise 02:57

Dr. Fatimah Lambat has been on the job, on the front line of South Africa's battle with COVID-19, non-stop for 16 months. 

"Emotionally, mentally, physically… you're exhausted already," she told Patta, "because you haven't had a break since last year March and you still have to get up, go on."

She said this third wave was bringing even more severe illness and deaths than the previous two. 

Last week's violent insurrection in South Africa, fueled by poverty and hunger, has only made things worse. Medical warehouses were looted, and security forces were diverted from escorting medical supplies as they tried to keep rioting and looting in check. That meant critical supplies weren't able to reach their destinations.   

Over 70 dead, hundreds of businesses destroyed in week long riots and looting in South Africa 01:56

"There is a shortage of oxygen, also a shortage of beds," Lambat told CBS News. "You put the two together, it's a complete disaster."

And the fast spread of the Delta variant is continuing to outpace vaccinations in the country.

Despite the availability of both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses, many vaccination sites were forced to shut down last week amid the riots, further hobbling inoculation efforts. 

Now authorities are worried that the violence could fuel an even larger surge in COVID cases, putting even more pressure on hospitals that are already at breaking point.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.