Harandane Toure started taking malaria pills when he first spiked a fever but as the days passed his illness only worsened.
Doctors ultimately told him he was among the hundreds now infected with the coronavirus in this town long fabled for being inaccessible from the rest of the world.
READ MORE: Short supply of medical oxygen worldwide leaves many gasping for air
There are no commercial flights to Timbuktu, whose remote location in the Sahara Desert has long made the town’s name synonymous with the ends of the Earth.
Health officials say the global pandemic has managed to reach here all the same. Already there are more than 500 cases including at least nine deaths, making it Mali’s largest outbreak outside the capital.
At the local hospital, a cluster of tents set up outside now houses 32 COVID-19 patients. There isn’t a single ventilator available. Temperatures regularly soar above 45 degrees Celsius, adding to the patients’ misery as they battle fever.
“At night I couldn’t sleep, I feel like there was a rock weighing a ton on my chest that was choking me and keeping me awake. I could hardly breathe,” he said. “For a moment, I asked to die so that I could be at peace because of the suffering I was going through, but God, inexplicably, miraculously, gave me a reprieve.”
COVID-19 first arrived in Mali back in March, when two cases emerged — one in the capital of Bamako, where international flights land, and the other in Kayes, a city with strong ties to the Malian diaspora in Europe.
By April, the virus made its way 1,000 kilometres from the capital to Timbuktu, a more than 24-hour journey by road. There are just a few buses a week from the capital, though cars used as public transport also make the trip.
The official death toll has reached nine, but at least six others who died later tested positive too.
So far the hospital here has had enough oxygen tanks to treat its patients battling COVID-19. But having enough nurses to administer it remains a struggle especially now that there are 32 COVID-19 patients too sick to recover at home under confinement.
Medical specialists remain woefully few to treat those with the coronavirus, whose complications have baffled doctors around the globe. There are no radiologists to read the chest X-rays, no lung specialists with experience in respiratory diseases or doctors specialized in kidney issues, which have emerged as one of COVID-19’s grave complications.