Monday, 18 October, 2021

Battling COVID in Africa takes more than vaccines. It takes “flying doctors,” and even they need help.


Lesotho — As dawn breaks, pilot Matthew Monson makes the final checks on his small plane and gets ready for a busy day. He’ll spend it flying health workers on the front line of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic to the most remote parts of the tiny African nation of Lesotho.   

Dubbed “The Mountain Kingdom” for good reason, the towering peaks and deep river valleys make many parts of Lesotho incredibly hard to reach.

That’s why the work being done by the Lesotho Flying Doctor Services is so vital. Thanks in part to donations from the U.S., the country has all the vaccine doses needed to inoculate its entire adult population — but acquiring them was only the first challenge. Now it must get them to the people.

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A view from the Lesotho Flying Doctor Services plane, flown by pilot Matthew Monson of the Mission Aviation Fellowship, which works with the project to bring health care to people in far-flung corners of the rugged southern African nation.

CBS News


“They have understood the importance to get vaccinated, and they are ready to get vaccinated, but sometimes the challenge is how we can reach them,” Dr. Justin Cishiya told CBS News. After years battling HIV and other illnesses as the medical officer in charge of the Flying Doctor Service, Cishiya is now focused on preventing a fourth wave of COVID-19 from sweeping across Lesotho.

The flying doctors serve 11 isolated clinics in the impoverished nation. They aim to visit each clinic twice a month, weather permitting — and it often doesn’t. The government-run flying doctors unit is assisted by a Christian charity called Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). Together they provide medical services and emergency treatment to communities that are completely inaccessible by road.

On the day we visited, MAF pilot Monson, who’s originally from Seattle but has been flying in Lesotho for years, said the weather conditions were perfect.

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The Lesotho Flying Doctor Services team walks through a remote village in the mountainous southern African nation after arriving by plane to administer COVID-19 vaccinations.

CBS News


The first stop was the village of Lebakeng. Only five people turned up for a shot. One of them was 69-year-old Kapetjana Maphondo. He said it took him two hours to walk to the clinic to meet the flying doctors. But for him, it was worth it to get the potentially life-saving jab.    

Some people have to cross mountains and rivers to get to the clinics. The villages are miles apart and donkeys are the most common form of transport, for those lucky enough to own one.    

The next stop was Manamaneng. While bad weather often makes flying impossible, a different obstruction blocked the plane’s touchdown on the day CBS News visited: A first attempted landing had to be aborted because there were too many sheep on the runway.

With that obstacle cleared, the team’s work was still far from straight-forward.  

“Even after we have reached the place, it wasn’t easy to vaccinate everyone at the clinic,” Cishiya told us. “We have to move out in the village, to find people from their homes.”  

Cishiya and his team go door to door, taking vaccines to the people. But they can’t travel too far on foot in the rugged terrain. By the end of the day, the flying doctors had only inoculated a handful of people. As in so many far-flung regions of Africa, the pace of vaccinations is excruciatingly slow.   


Global vaccine inequality

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Lesotho only has about 2.1 million inhabitants, but less than 14% have been vaccinated so far. That’s a much better rate than many other African nations, however, where similar logistical challenges and supply shortages have hampered inoculation drives. According to data compiled by the World Health Organization, 26 African nations have yet to get even 4% of their populations a first shot.

In the U.S., by comparison, almost 55% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

And while wealthy countries roll out booster shots, Africa remains dangerously exposed to a looming fourth wave of infections — and the risks of more deaths and possible new coronavirus mutations that come with it.   


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Cishiya told us that the Lesotho Flying Doctor Service plans to send teams into hard-to-reach communities more regularly. But he knows all too well that, in Africa, reaching President Joe Biden’s stated goal of getting 70% of the world’s inhabitants vaccinated within a year, “can be really a big challenge.”

Monson, with his cockpit-view of the front line in the war on COVID, agrees. 

“We need more help and we need more support — whether that’s funding or personnel to keep the vaccine moving,” Monson told CBS News. “Certainly, if we don’t get support, we’re not going to reach those kind of numbers in a year, or two years.”

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