NICOSIA — Lekulutu Nsima considers himself a “lucky man” after receiving his first Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine shot against COVID-19 on Cyprus.
The 33-year-old asylum seeker said that in his native Congo, the government has only procured a handful of vaccine doses for one of Africa’s most populous nations, and those are often reserved for the country’s elites, the wealthy and politically connected.
Nsima was one of hundreds of foreign nationals who stood in line on Friday under Cyprus’ searing midsummer sun at the capital’s only walk-in vaccination center geared toward vaccinating free of charge those who aren’t covered under the country’s General Healthcare System, or GHS.
Cypriot authorities have been surprised by the huge turnout at the center. The idea was to enable those without GHS coverage to walk in for a shot without having to go through the hassle of online appointments that could be weeks away.
On the center’s first day a week earlier, some 2,555 people without GHS coverage received a vaccine shot.
“The tremendous response of the people shows this is something that’s very positive,” Cypriot Health Minister Michalis Hadjipantela told reporters after touring the center. “As you can imagine, we couldn’t have foreseen such a response.”
A powerful incentive for many to opt for vaccination is the fact that the Cypriot government has required the mandatory display of a ‘SafePass’ certificate for entry into places where people gather in numbers, including restaurants, bars, shopping malls and supermarkets.
The certificate proves that the holder has received at least one shot, has been tested for the virus in the previous 72 hours or has recently recovered from the disease.
But there are some drawbacks. There’s only one such center catering to those without GHS coverage and it is only open once a week. Hadjipantela said there are simply not enough health care workers to open another such center.
Health Ministry Permanent Secretary Christina Yiannaki said more than 1,000 people will receive their first vaccine shot on Aug. 20.
“The fact that today more than 1,000 foreign nationals — because most are foreign nationals — will be vaccinated is very significant because they’re part of our society as well,” said Yiannaki.
Official figures indicate that nearly 70 percent of the country’s adult population have been fully vaccinated, while 76.3 percent have received at least their first shot. Health officials attribute a surge of COVID-19 infections in recent weeks to the delta variant which has swept through the East Mediterranean island nation.
Nsima, who had worked for a decade in the Congolese prime minister’s office and had once aspired to become a priest, said he fled his homeland to avoid persecution by the country’s new government which had clashed with the opposition political party to which he belonged.
He said his blood is “very strong,” but he is aware that after getting his second shot in a month’s time, he’ll be protected from the worst of the coronavirus if he contracts it.
The scarcity of vaccines is a continent-wide phenomenon in Africa, he said. “The world needs to send more Pfizer and Moderna vaccines there to Africa,” Nsima said.