Usually crowded with football fans, Mandela National Stadium is now a temporary hospital for patients with Covid, and although the government says it is designed for patients with mild to moderate cases, the body being removed suggests otherwise.
In the empty rooms around the arena, there are dozens of bed frames without mattresses, pressed together in preparation for more patients. The government has said it has increased the capacity of the bed to serve 1,000 people as it expects the worst.
At the start of the pandemic, the site was turned into a mobile health treatment center, but eventually only a few asymptomatic cases were sent to the stadium for monitoring.
A sharp rise in cases
According to President Youri Museveni, the second wave turned out to be more deadly than the first, which occurred in late 2020.
“In this wave, the intensity of severe and critically ill patients with Covid-19 and death is higher than we experienced in the first wave,” Museveni said on Sunday when he announced the resumption of restrictions.
“In the previous wave, it took us three to four months to reach the current state of critical and severe patients, while in the second wave it took us less than two weeks.”
The sharp increase in cases thought to be fueled by various options circulating in the country has surprised public and private hospitals, and many have struggled to meet the constant demand for care.
“The breakthrough was within a week,” said Dr. Daniel Talemva, medical director at TMR International Hospital in Kampala. He told CNN that his facility had little time to store supplies, as in the first wave.
“We’ve begun to see the numbers in the intensive care unit increase from two to almost 10 at a time.”
The younger population is most affected
TMR International Hospital is a small private facility that has been overcrowded in the last two weeks. He has increased the capacity of the bed by 50% from eight intensive care beds to 12 and is building a new unit.
But even with added bed space, its biggest challenge is the lack of oxygen, space and medical staff to support patients. The hospital repels at least 15 desperate and critical patients a day.
One of the few lucky patients to be admitted was 40-year-old Stephen Ntambi, who had just been taken off a life support machine when CNN met him.
Lying in bed with his wife sitting on a bench nearby, Ntambi shed what he called “tears of joy,” thanking the doctors for saving his life when he thought he was “half dead.”
“The way I feel now, I feel like God has given me another thousand years,” Ntambi said between breaths.
He called on Ugandans to take the virus seriously, saying his second chance had opened his eyes to how “people should not play recklessly with their lives”.
His wife, Sharon, told CNN she never thought the severe form of Covid-19 her husband was suffering from could happen to anyone his age.
The second wave in Uganda has hit young people hard, with those aged between 30 and 39 being the hardest hit, according to the health ministry. Those aged 20-29 registered the second largest number of positive cases.
“This time we are getting young people who used to be healthy,” said Dr. Erasmus Erebou Okelo, an TMR intensivist.
The youngest patient to be treated in critical care was only 18, while the average age was 40. “I believe this is a new strain that is more aggressive than the previous one,” Okelo said.
Younger people may have become complacent and started attending major social services after the outbreak last year, he added. Preventive measures such as social distancing can also be ignored.
Museveni has threatened to lock the country out completely if people oppose the current restrictions, while hundreds have been arrested for violations, including being in clubs after curfew at 9 p.m.
Terrible shortage of vaccines
Like many African countries, Uganda has a serious shortage of vaccines. Less than 20,000 Covid-19 vaccines remain and less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. The possibility of continuous, more vicious waves is looming.
As of Thursday, Uganda registered the highest one-day jump in infections with 1,438 new cases.
The country has reached 56,949 registered cases and 402 deaths. Although these numbers are low compared to many other countries around the world, doctors fear that they could increase significantly if the cases are not checked.
With only 1.8% of Uganda’s 42 million people vaccinated so far, according to the health ministry, the number threatens to continue to rise.
Uganda has almost exhausted 964,000 shots of AstraZeneca, which it received from COVAX, the WHO vaccine-sharing initiative for low- and middle-income countries.
Additional deliveries of COVAX vaccines, which were expected in May, have not yet arrived.
Vaccine procurement has slowed to a drop after the COVAX facility was crippled by the cessation of shipments from India, where most vaccines were delivered.
“If we had received this vaccine at the end of the last wave and at least managed to vaccinate the 4.2 million people we targeted, those who are vulnerable would not have survived what we are going through,” said Dr. Diana Atwin. Uganda’s good health official told CNN.
“Our community would be much, much better than what we are experiencing now,” she said.
Atwin said that the nationalism of vaccines and the “accumulation” of doses from richer countries make it almost impossible for countries like Uganda to obtain vaccines.
Uganda expects an additional 175,000 doses of AstraZeneca from COVAX to arrive on June 14. She also expects a donation of 300,000 shots from the Chinese vaccine Sinovac.
The country wants to buy vaccines from the United States, China, Russia – or wherever they can get them, according to President Museveni. “If I had access to vaccines, even tomorrow, we would run a national campaign and vaccinate,” Atwin said.