Covid in Senegal: Vaccine Demand Grows but Supply Is Short

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DAKAR, Senegal — When Mbaye Ndiaye, a science teacher in Senegal, arrived in his classroom after getting his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in April, his pupils burst into a round of applause. Surprised, he asked them what they were congratulating him for.

“We appreciate your courage, sir,” he recalls one of the students explaining.

Rumors and misinformation have accompanied the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccination campaigns in every country, and Senegal is no exception. Some Senegalese, worried about the safety of the shots, were reluctant to get one. Others wondered if there was even a need.

But something has changed in Senegal after the pandemic’s third wave there. More people want to get a vaccine shot.

If only they could find one.

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Mbaye Ndiaye, a science teacher, talking to his students about his inoculation experience. Since receiving a shot in April, he has become something of a vaccine evangelist.Credit…Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

“No first dose of any of the vaccines,” said Rama Sy, a nurse in charge of administering the shots at one hospital. “We have no idea when new doses will be available.”

In July, the third wave hit Senegal harder than previous ones.

Hospitals filled up, and there were reports that the number of burials at Dakar’s main cemetery had increased sharply. Testing rates are low, but for a few weeks, around a quarter of tests were coming back positive. One day in July, 38 percent of them did.

One recent day in the middle of Ngor, a fishing village turned suburb in Dakar where children carry fish by their tails through winding streets and young people in skinny jeans hunch over their cellphones, Ms. Sy was at work when a man she recognized entered the hospital.

Earlier in the pandemic, she had tried to persuade him to get vaccinated, but he had refused. Now here he was, sitting in her chair, proffering his arm, waiting for the needle’s prick.

“Why have you changed your mind?” she recalled asking him.

“Damako guiss,” he replied. “I have seen it.”

The young man was among the lucky ones. He joined the 7 percent of Senegalese who have had a shot.

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Waiting for vaccine shots at a hospital in Ngor. Some nurses have had to turn people away because of supply limitations.Credit…Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

But nurses like Ms. Sy have had to turn many others away.

When Covid vaccines were first available, she said, many older people had shown up, but young people had been more hesitant, both to get vaccinated or, if they were sick, to get tested.

“For some people, until they experience it, or witness it, they will not trust that the disease exists,” said Ms. Sy, who is 60. “They do not want to know if they have Covid-19 or not.”

Even Mr. Ndiaye, the science teacher, had his doubts at first.

Like his colleagues at Abass Sall secondary school in Liberte VI, a Dakar neighborhood, Mr. Ndiaye, 67, had not really wanted to get inoculated. He had heard wild rumors and conspiracy theories, and he was not sure what to believe.

But on that April morning, when a vaccination team came to his school, the director gathered the teachers together and asked for volunteers, to set an example. Mr. Ndiaye said he was the first to put up his hand.

Now, having seen for himself that the rumors were nothing more than that, rumors, he is something of a vaccine evangelist, encouraging his fellow teachers, students and neighbors to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their families.

“I personally never met someone who got Covid-19, but I know it exists and it is a deadly disease,” he said. “I tell people that all vaccines have side effects, and none of them are 100 percent perfect.”

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“For some people, until they experience it, or witness it, they will not trust that the disease exists,” said Rama Sy, a nurse in Dakar, Senegal.Credit…Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

The third wave in Senegal came with a complication: It coincided with the beginning of what everybody calls “l’hivernage” — the rainy, hot season — a time when, even in pandemic-free years, people tend to get sick with malaria, flu or stomach bugs. The symptoms overlap somewhat with those of Covid and sometimes doctors do not recommend coronavirus tests, so sick people are often not sure what they have.

This has inspired more Senegalese to seek out vaccines, if they could find them.

In late August, like many health facilities in Senegal, Ngor hospital was completely out of both Sinopharm and Johnson & Johnson shots, and could give only second doses of AstraZeneca.

Senegal is hardly the only African nation to go wanting when it comes to vaccines. Only 3.7 percent of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated, compared with 54 percent of the American population and 60 percent of the European Union’s.

Richer countries have bought up doses well into the future, and many African countries could not compete. For a time, they relied on Covax, a global vaccine-sharing partnership, to provide them, but Covax vaccines stopped coming when India imposed restrictions on AstraZeneca exports earlier this year.

That has left Senegalese like Mr. Ndiaye scrambling.

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Graffiti encouraging coronavirus precautions on the wall of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. The third wave hit Senegal harder than previous ones.Credit…Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

The health workers who came to his school told him to get his second dose at Mamadou Diop health center in Liberte VI, a neighborhood in Dakar. But for six weeks, there were no AstraZeneca shots available.

He kept phoning the health center to check. He even tried to get a different kind of vaccine for his second dose, but the health center staff told him that was not possible.

Finally, last week, AstraZeneca was back in stock.

Clutching his little green vaccination card in hands folded behind his back, Mr. Ndiaye made his way down the health center’s gray and white corridors and to the glass-doored room where nurses were administering vaccines.

He emerged from behind the glass a few minutes later. You could tell he was smiling, even through the mask. He had finally received his second dose.

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