MAMOUDZOU, Mayotte – Mayotte’s main tourist office is almost empty, a lonely tropical outpost overlooking a deserted harbor. However, the only hospital is overwhelmed.

Demand for intensive care beds has more than quadrupled as medical professionals battle to contain the worst coronavirus outbreak to date in the French Indian Ocean.

The Mayotte Islands are the poorest corner of the European Union, between Madagascar and the mainland coast of Mozambique in southern Africa – and were the last place in France where coronavirus vaccines were administered.

Feeling forgotten, local authorities say their difficulties in fighting the virus reflect the long-standing inequalities between the white-majority mainland of France and its far-flung multicultural former colonies.

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The French army is sending medical workers and some ICU beds, and President Emmanuel Macron’s government on Wednesday pledged to step up vaccine shipments. Aid will only go so far, however, in the islands where masks are a luxury, where nearly a third of the 300,000 people in the area have no running water, and where a new lockdown is stifling livelihoods.

“We used to work in the big market to sell things and have money to feed our families,” said Ahamada Soulaimana Soilihi, a 40-year-old father of six who lives in a shanty town in Mayotte’s capital, Mamoudzou.

Then, last week, authorities shut down Mayotte’s economy and ordered people to stay home to tackle fast-growing cases of the virus variant that is prevalent in South Africa.

“How can we live without work, without being able to move, without anything?” Soilihi asked.

With ocean waves circling empty beaches and police patrolling the quiet streets of Mamoudzou’s business district, many people in Soilihi’s Bandrajou neighborhood seem unaware of lockdown rules or social distancing measures. Groups of children play barefoot on the dusty floor, girls carry buckets on their heads to fetch water from a collective pump, an older woman at an informal street stall braids the hair of a younger woman. Almost nobody wears a mask.

Health workers recognize that there is no easy solution.

The virus is attacking Mayotte in “brutal and rapid” ways, Dominique Voynet, director of the regional health service, told The Associated Press. “All indicators are getting darker and darker … people are falling like flies.”

Mayotte’s weekly infection rate is now almost four times higher than the French national average. The area has recorded 11,447 virus cases since the pandemic began – a third of them in the last two weeks – and at least 68 deaths, double the nation’s per capita virus death rate. It is believed that many cases and deaths are not counted.

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It was all the more disappointing that Mayotte was the last French overseas region to receive a vaccine shipment a month after the first doses landed in Paris, more than 8,400 kilometers away.

“We were equipped much later than other (French) regions, to my great dismay,” said Voynet.

The French Foreign Legion supplied the freezer needed to store Mayotte’s first shipments of 950 doses of Pfizer BioNTech vaccines. More shipments have arrived and the area has so far vaccinated 2,400 people, or less than 1% of its population.

In Paris, government spokesman Gabriel Attal first argued that Mayotte’s young population – only 4% are over 60 – meant the region was a low priority for vaccination, noting that “demographics and geography are becoming apparent differ from the mainland ”.

But now that infections are rampant, the French central government is increasingly concerned.

Doctors transport several intensive care patients to the nearby island of Reunion every day. The French military flew in medical workers on Sunday. The regional health service organizes water deliveries to encourage the poorest to stay at home.

Many islands and countries of the Indian Ocean on mainland Africa are facing similar – or worse – outbreaks and vaccination delays.

Madagascar, with a population of 27 million, has no vaccines yet. Mozambique, with a population of 30 million, has imposed a curfew to combat an increase in the variant prevalent in South Africa and also has no vaccines. Not even the nearby Comoros with 850,000 inhabitants.

The region’s largest country, South Africa, has reported more than 1.47 million cases with 60 million people, including over 46,800 deaths. His health secretary announced on Wednesday that the government would distribute the unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine to healthcare workers after a small test showed that the AstraZeneca vaccine offered minimal protection against the country’s dominant variant.

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Mayotte lawmaker Mansour Kamardine doesn’t understand why his home is in such dire straits.

When the rest of the Comoros island chain voted for independence from France after a century and a half of colonial rule in the 1970s, the residents of Mayotte overwhelmingly voted to remain French.

Today Mayotte has the same administrative status as any region on mainland France – one of the richest countries in the world. The area uses the euro as its currency and is represented in the European Parliament. A 2003 law promises “freedom, equality and fraternity” to all people in France’s overseas countries.

But when the virus emerged, “Mayotte was forgotten,” Kamardine told the AP. “We are far from the eyes, we are far from the heart” of French power.

He wrote to the government to unsuccessfully ask for more permanent beds in the intensive care unit. The whole area has only 16.

Mayotte is one of nine areas – mostly French – with a special status in the EU as the ‘outermost region’ that have access to development funds to narrow the economic gap with continental Europe that has remained since colonial times.

Given that Europe is now facing its own vaccination problems and the ongoing economic crisis, the outlook for Mayotte is bleak.

In a palm-shaded Mamoudzou café, red Coca-Cola plastic chairs with a sign pointing to Tokyo, which is 11,230 kilometers away, gather. Metal grilles hide shop windows. Business travel and tourism have declined in the wake of the pandemic.

In the Caribou restaurant, bar and hotel, Chaima Nombamba manages the take-away counter – the only part of the business that is still allowed to operate.

The hotel has closed due to “a spate of cancellations”. Most restaurant workers are temporarily unemployed – a coronavirus program run by the French government that the informal economy doesn’t like.

“Yes, the health crisis is very serious and for some of us it is deadly. But is it the time to punish small businesses, especially our area of ​​activity, which is being hit really hard and which is being gradually killed by small fires? ” She asked.

“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We can’t make plans or foresee certain things because they change every day, ”she said. “So where is the solution?”

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