Africa Defense Forum
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Pandemic Transforming Health Care Delivery in Africa

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The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed health systems in many African countries to the breaking point. But there is some good news amid the challenges: The continent has seen a boom in health care technology, including telemedicine, robots, drones and innovative manufacturing.

A 2021 report by health care consulting company Salient Advisory focused on some of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most active hubs — Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda — and found that more than 60 tech companies “are now working to transform health product distribution with new models serving consumers directly, easing product supply to providers and offering product data services.”

“Startups across the continent are developing innovative, commercial models to transform health-product distribution for consumers and providers alike,” the report said.

COVID-19 is transforming the future of African health care delivery in many ways.

Telemedicine

Digital health platforms might be the biggest growth industry impacted by the pandemic worldwide because it limits contact for health workers; treats infected, vulnerable and remote patients; and saves money by reducing the need for physical infrastructure.

“In the past 12 months, there’s been an explosion of providers and technology platforms,” Mason Marks, Harvard University fellow in ethics of technological and biomedical innovation, said during a virtual panel discussion in April 2021.

“Certain regulatory restrictions have been relaxed, and there are more and more options for patients seeking care by telehealth, both in terms of the types of care they can receive and the people who can deliver that care.”

Babyl, a digital health care provider in Rwanda, reported an increase in daily consultations from about 3,000 in March 2020 to more than 5,000 in August 2021.

Ugandan provider Rocket Health said phone and video consultations rose by 500% in 2020 and quadrupled in 2021.

An August 2021 report by three African telecommunications companies showed that 75% of African nations have a digital health strategy, while smartphone engagement with digital health services continues to soar.

Hospital robots

Just as telemedicine protects health workers while serving patients in isolation, robots have proved their worth in African hospitals.

Rwanda won praise early in the pandemic when it deployed a small fleet of sleek, white robots with blinking blue eyes to communicate with patients. The robots are able to take the temperatures of 50 to 150 people per minute.

They also can keep medical records, which will help the country transition from paper to digital patient files.

Inventors in Egypt, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia have created their own robots as well.

“It reduces our staff infection rate to zero,” a Cairo hospital manager told Reuters, referring to a locally produced robot.

Delivery drones

The hardship of getting medicine and health supplies to clinics and patients in rural and remote areas has eased dramatically with the advent of drones.

Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda have partnered with medical delivery service Zipline International, which operates a fleet of autonomous drones to move laboratory samples, blood packets for transfusion, and other medical supplies to distant points quickly and at a low cost.

Rwanda has established itself as a popular testing ground for drone technology, giving rise to numerous startups.

Medical manufacturing

The pandemic showed there is no bigger need in Africa’s health sector than medicines and supplies produced on the continent to address global supply and access issues.

When COVID-19 hit, large factories and small businesses sprang into action to repurpose operations and create personal protective equipment.

Researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, began developing a $1 testing kit that will produce results in under 10 minutes.

But the need for African-made pharmaceuticals remains.

With the help of the World Health Organization, South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics will serve as an mRNA pharmaceutical manufacturing hub, sharing knowledge with other African manufacturers to increase the continent’s capacity.

One of them is Biovac, a pharmaceutical company formed in 2003 in partnership with the South African government to build local capacity for manufacturing medicines.

The African Development Bank is also developing a 2030 vision for Africa’s pharmaceutical industry, according to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed.

“The African Continental Free Trade Area opens new opportunities and creates a $250 billion pharmaceutical market with the potential for further growth,” she said during the September meeting. “Let us use the momentum of these initiatives to drive the production of affordable and high-quality medicines for Africa.”

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