COVID-19 has exposed the extent of the weaknesses in health care systems around Africa. However, the pandemic is also inspiring innovative ways of delivering health care to remote areas across the continent.
In Ghana, a health care logistics company called Zipline is using drones to transport COVID-19 test samples from areas that don’t have testing facilities to laboratories in Accra and Kumasi, the country's biggest cities.
This is the first time that drones have been used to deliver COVID-19 samples, and return test results back to potential patients. This is also the first time that self-flying drones have been used for long-range deliveries in high-density urban areas.
The tests are requested by health care workers who order medical supplies at a Zipline distribution centre.
Daniel Marfo, general manager of Zipline in Ghana, explained: “Immediately [when] they have a suspected case of COVID, they reach out to Zipline. Using multimodal transportation, we are then able to reach out to them, pick up the samples from them, [go] to our distribution centre, and from our distribution centre, our drone then flies it off to the testing lab.”
Before drones were used to transport samples, they would have to journey by land for up to six hours, according to Time magazine.
Meanwhile in some villages, ambulances had to wait several days in one clinic in order to collect as many tests as possible. The average time drones take to deliver samples and supplies is 30 minutes.
The effort to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak has sparked a shortage of medical supplies, including testing kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other health care resources globally.
In Africa, the pandemic is unfolding alongside already existing challenges such as lack of infrastructure and basic health facilities in some places, lack of clean water and safe sanitation, and rising poverty and inequality.
With regards to COVID-19 readiness, some countries only have a handful of ventilators to treat patients. South Sudan, for example, has more vice presidents than it does ventilators — with just four ventilators (versus five vice presidents) for its population of 11 million.
South Africa, which has a population of 59 million, has only around 3,000 critical care beds. In Nigeria, there are only 25 facilities that can test for COVID-19, while the country has a population of more than 200 million.
President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana said during a televised address in April that COVID-19 had “exposed the deficiencies” of Ghana’s health care system.
Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline, said the company is also working to address other of these challenges in Ghana using drones — including using them to send personal protective equipment to frontline workers in rural areas.
He told the World Economic Forum that another potentially valuable use for drones would be to deliver direct care to the elderly, and people who are in self-isolation.
He said: “Suddenly there’s a dramatic need to extend the reach of the hospital network and the health care system closer to where people live.”
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