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African countries set the tone in technological innovation to fight COVID-19

This post was written by Azan Z. Virji MPH, Jean Claude Mugunga MSc MD, Daniel Palazuelos MD, MPH

In early April, the World Economic Forum published an article with the heading “Africa has a COVID-19 time bomb to defuse”. Make no mistake- African countries are not waiting for cases to rise and the time bomb to go off.

Africa is not weak. Africa has been fighting terrible diseases for centuries and continues to battle infectious pathogens on a daily basis. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Africa has always had an abundance of young energy, materials, and optimism- COVID19 has just set this into overdrive. With Africa having over 25,000 confirmed cases, home-grown innovation has been the driving force behind the fight against COVID19 on many parts of the continent. To fully allow this raw potential to be definitive, now is the time for the world to recognize Africa in more egalitarian terms rooted in equity and freedom. This includes the revision of the global economic policies that currently deprive African nations of significant financial resources.

Ventilators

When patients with severe COVID19 infection have difficulty breathing, they’re placed on ventilators. Most ventilators are made in the global north and sold at a rate that African government budget’s cannot afford en masse. What is needed instead is sustainable, affordable, and equivalent solutions.

Queue the ingenuity and teamwork of Africans: The President of Academic City University College in Ghana along with a team of 13 have created a prototype of a mechanical ventilator for 5,000 GHC ($862). In comparison, the Trump Administration was recently quoted $18,000 for a new ventilator by General Motors and Ventec Life Systems. Similarly, on the opposite coast of the continent, a 21-year-old Somali mechanical engineer developed a home-made respirator capable of automated ventilation. At a time when the Somalian Health Ministry declared no ventilators in the country, Mohammed Adawe’s solution is bound to change the course of the COVID19 epidemic in the country. More examples of this engineering feat was also seen in Rwanda and Uganda.

Food insecurity

In many low-income countries, more than 80% of the livestock product purchases occur through informal markets, often termed ‘wet’ markets. However, with many African countries adopting lockdown policies, the closure of wet markets are hurting the daily income of smallholder farmers and exacerbating the food insecurity that many people face.

Women market sellers in Uganda have found a workaround using the mobile application Market Garden. The 2018 application, created by the Institute for Social Transformation, allows vendors to sell their goods from the comfort of their home. The entire process is streamlined from motorcycle taxi deliveries to online payments. In Zimbabwe, Fresh in a Box is doing something similar providing a last lifeline to many during this challenging time.

Mobile information and disease tracking 

During the global pandemic, two of the hardest aspects to control are the spread of misinformation, often tied to a rise in fear, and the spread of the virus itself. With a basic reproduction number ranging from 2-4, it is easy to see how COVID19 can quickly overwhelm a country if no control measures are put in place. The rise of social media has in a sense, allowed for even further spread of myths and rumors about the virus. This problem was particularly evident in the US where false information led some to drink bleach and some to incorrectly self-medicate with chloroquine to kill the virus, despite a lack of scientific evidence.

An e-health startup in Ghana, Redbird, is giving epidemiologists the data they need to follow the trajectory of COVID19 cases in real-time. The platform allows for Ghanaians to self-report their symptoms while it simultaneously tags their geolocation and phone number. Once a potential case record is set up, this information can be mapped and sent to hospitals to allow for digital record keeping and triage. Nigeria also created a comparable application called the COVID19 Triage Tool.

To curb the spread of misinformation, two Cape Town students have created Coronapp- a repository of up to date, factual information about COVID19. The goal of this endeavor was to stamp out myths about the disease and how to treat it before South Africans placed themselves in harm’s way. It also encourages the practice of social distancing to lessen the burden on the healthcare system.

Lessons learned

Firstly, Africa does not get enough credit for its innovative prowess and the current global economic order deprives it from its immense resources needed to take new innovation to the next level. In 2018, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was given a region-wide innovation score of 25 according to the Global Innovation Index 2018 report. Only 8 African countries from SSA made it into the top 100 most innovative countries. This points to a larger issue of how we define innovation. If a single man can develop a complex, mechanical instrument, that could save thousands of lives, under pressure and with limited resources, shouldn’t that count as innovation at the highest level? Accounting for the environment should take precedence in such global metrics.

LISUNGWI, MALAWI – SEPTEMBER 25, 2018: Lab scientist Allan Chimpeni prepares TB samples for Gene Xpert at Lisungwi Community Hospital, where he has worked since 2013. Chimpeni completed school in May 2018 at the College of Medicine in Blantyre. The lab’s biggest workload is malaria at 50-70 tests a day, and will rise to 120-150 tests a day in rainy months of Nov – Jan.

Secondly, the world should learn from some of the best of Africa – those who have been quick to respond to COVID19 and prioritize science and technological solutions to address this modern-day crisis. Mauritius confirmed its first 3 cases on March 18th and a “sanitary lockdown” was in effect only two days later. By March 25th, a complete lockdown was in effect with only essential services open, flattening the COVID19 curve. Equity was not compromised during this epidemic. Uganda knew very early on that COVID19 would worsen food insecurity. So the government decided to mobilize and donate food to close to 1.5 million residents living in the metropolitan area of Kampala. Rwanda continues to disinfect all cargo trucks entering their border. Many African countries have closely followed data-driven guidelines on how to curb the spread of this virus knowing full well the toll it will take on their country. Rwanda has applied lessons learned from their fight against Ebola to respond swiftly and decisively.

Lastly, as the cases of COVID19 rise on the African continent, the narrative may shift to one that pities the continent as a whole for its inability to fight the virus. It may also dive into the history of corruption and inept political leaders and how they have contributed to the rise of the epidemic. However, as this rhetoric begins to escalate, let’s not forget the years of abuse, exploitation, and colonialist rule that have stunted the growth of the continent.

Going forward, it is clear that there is untapped potential on the African continent. If Africans can create home-made ventilators and food delivery platforms with limited resources, imagine what they could do with more robust resources. Africans take what they are given, adapt, create, and survive. Time and time again, Africans have proven that they can rebound from some of the worst calamities. From genocides (Rwanda), epidemics (Ebola in West Africa), and civil wars (Nigerian Civil War), when given the opportunity, Africa has the potential to thrive. Just like all prior atrocities, Africa can rise above this one, stronger, more advanced, and more hopeful than before. Global powers should foster this creativity, nurture this enthusiasm, and kindle this ever-burning fire on the continent without exploiting it.

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