Sudan is struggling to provide hospital beds, drugs and medical oxygen to COVID-19 patients hit by a third wave of infections that is straining the country’s patchy healthcare system beyond what it can cope with. With a population of over 40 million, data collation sources like Worldometer report that Sudan has recorded 35 243 cases and 2 600 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Officials say the real numbers are likely to be much higher given low rates of testing.

During much of April and in the first weeks of May, an acute shortage of oxygen, partly due to power cuts that impeded production at the country’s main plant, has left hospitals unable to provide adequate care to desperately ill COVID patients.

Social media was awash with desperate pleas for help from relatives seeking beds, drugs and oxygen cylinders for their loved ones.

Officials say about 300 ventilators are available in the country, a number that is nowhere near what would be needed to respond to the current emergency.

A government study showed 38% of oxygen cylinders had been smuggled out of the health system for certain patients to use at home. Some patients bribed hospital staff for the cylinders, while others relied on personal relationships.

In April, officials said Sudan could meet just 40% of its need for medicines.

The country has 37 hospitals that can take in COVID patients, but only 11 of them are in the capital Khartoum even though it has more than 70% of the cases.

Hussein Malasi, a senior manager at the Sudanese Liquid Gas Company, said that under normal circumstances, the firm could produce enough medical oxygen to meet the country’s needs, but the country lacks the cylinders needed to transport it.

Authorities said they were urgently facilitating imports of about 1 250 more cylinders to meet patient needs.

The shortage of oxygen and wider failings of the health system are a symptom of a deep malaise in Sudan, which has been stuck in an economic crisis for years. Following the secession of the oil-producing South in 2011 and decades of international isolation due to United States sanctions, the country lacks the foreign reserves needed to procure medicines and other medical supplies abroad.

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Authorities complain that only 160 000 have received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, much less than 400 000 expected by the end of April, due to widespread skepticism and misinformation.