The story of the Corona Outbreak in Timbuktu, a City in the Sahara Desert Dubbed ‘The End of the World’

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The story of the Corona Outbreak in Timbuktu, a City in the Sahara Desert Dubbed 'The End of the World'
Covid-19 outbreak in Timbuktu. © AP Photo / Baba Ahmed

Merdeka.com – Harandane Toure (50) started taking malaria pills when he first had a fever. Days passed but the illness got worse. The doctor finally told him that he was among the hundreds who were now infected with the corona virus.

There are no commercial flights to Timbuktu in West Africa, which is located far in the Sahara Desert, which has long made the name of this city identical to the ends of the Earth. Even in Donald Duck comics, Timbuktu refers to the city of nowhere that is not on the map. In reality, this region has long been difficult to access from all over the world.

Health officials say the global pandemic has reached here. There have been more than 500 cases including at least nine deaths, making it the largest plague of Mali outside the capital.

At the local hospital, a group of tents set up outside now houses 32 Covid-19 patients. There is no ventilator available. The temperature rises above 45 degrees Celsius, adding to the suffering of patients as they struggle with fever.

“I am on the verge of death because there are times when I am panting like a fish that has just been taken out of a river,” Toure, a teacher who did not claim to not know where he could contract Covid-19, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press on Tuesday (1/7).

“At night I could not sleep, I felt there was a ton of stone in my chest that was suffocating and kept me awake. I could barely breathe,” he said.

“For a moment, I hoped to die so that I could calm down because of the suffering I was experiencing, but God, for some reason, miraculously, miraculously, gave me a reprieve,” he added.

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The Beginning of the Outbreak

Covid-19 was first confirmed arriving in Mali in March, when two cases arose – one in the capital city of Bamako, where international flights landed, and the other in Kayes, a city with strong ties to the Mali diaspora in Europe.

In April, the virus traveled 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the capital to Timbuktu, traveling more than 24 hours by land. There are only a few buses a week from the capital, although cars used as public transportation also travel.

The official death toll has reached nine, but at least six other people who died later tested positive as well.

So far the hospital in Timbuktu has enough oxygen tanks to treat patients who are battling Covid-19. But having enough nurses to run it is still a struggle because now there are 32 Covid-19 patients who are too ill to recover in homes that are undergoing isolation in their respective homes.

Specialists are still very few to treat those suffering from coronavirus, whose complications have confused doctors around the world. There are no radiologists to read chest radiographs, no lung specialists with experience in respiratory diseases or specialists in kidney problems, which have emerged as one of the serious complications of Covid-19.

“We don’t have a public health doctor, let alone an epidemiologist,” complained Djibril Kassogue, regional health director for Timbuktu.

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Kidnapping Threats from Extremist Groups

from extremist groups

With locations that are difficult to reach, it is not easy to recruit more health workers. In addition, the risk of violence remains high in this region where foreigners have long been the target of kidnappings for ransom by extremist groups.

Regular UN peacekeeping patrols are a daily reminder of Mali’s unstable security conditions. From the surrounding desert, extremists continue to plant roadside bombs in the north, adding isolation. The US mission does fly to and from Bamako, and often transports Covid-19 tests from locations far to the capital.

When that is not possible, local health officials have chosen to send them on public buses, adding a delay in processing time each time the bus breaks down.

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Not Running Health Protocol

This month the Mali Ministry of Health sent a mobile laboratory to Timbuktu and a team capable of carrying out more than 100 tests a day.

This is a big step in Mali, where two months after its outbreak in May, the International Rescue Committee said the country still only took 173 tests per 1 million people. In comparison, the United States at that time conducted 38,394 tests per 1 million amid too little widespread criticism.

There is also concern about what could happen if the virus infects a more remote part of northern Mali, where the presence of extremists makes it difficult for health teams to explore and test. Outbreaks among nomadic populations in the north can be very difficult to trace, experts warn.

In Timbuktu, life has not changed much in the midst of viruses. A group of people still pray in the mosque, the use of masks is not compulsory and many doubt that Covid-19 is what kills people.

Moussa Hama Sankare, head of the hospital, has expressed concern about people making secret visits at night to see Covid-19 patients locked up in their homes.

Toure, a patient who is now recovering, is worried that people will not take the virus seriously enough.

“People have started to leave masks and come out in public without masks,” he said. “If people don’t protect themselves, I’m afraid this disease will hit Timbuktu hard.” [bal]

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