By Chukwuka Okwuosa, Nailah Ramsoomair, and Chidi Oguamanam

“Dealing with health and economic challenges of Covid-19 has made one point abundantly clear for African countries – that we need broadband, faster, cheaper and expanded to the last mile of the populations”.  This observation credited to UN Under Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, Ms. Vera Songwe has never rung truer than in these unprecedented times. Leveraging technology to assist African countries in the fight against Covid-19 is imperative to finding effective solutions for containing the virus in an economically feasible manner for Africa, taking into consideration the continent’s technological infrastructure.

Engineering Home-Made Tech Solutions

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Africa has been at the forefront of digital health innovation solutions, addressing the effects of the virus, specifically suited to African contexts. Different technological innovations have become important in mitigating the effects of Covid-19, especially in densely populated areas. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 57.8% of the innovations in Africa are ICT-driven, ranging from WhatsApp chatbots in South Africa, to self-diagnostic tools in Angola, to contact tracing apps in Ghana, South Africa, and Nigeria. The use of contact tracing apps, although varying in community uptake, relies on GPS and Bluetooth smartphone technology in order to monitor potential contact with infected persons. In addition to ICT-driven solutions, 25% of innovations are based on 3-D printing, such as the production of masks, and 10.9% of solutions are robotic. There have been significant developments in robotic innovations in Africa, aimed at preventing the transmission of the virus, managing it, and/or containing it.

Leveraging Robotics in the Fight against COVID-19

Rwanda has recently developed robots for the purpose of mass temperature screening, tracking of medical records, and patient surveillance in general. The robots help to decrease the amount of direct contact between patients and healthcare workers, limiting the spread of the virus. Similarly, Senegal deployed robots – controlled remotely using an application – to survey temperatures of infected patients and to deliver goods and drugs to these patients, thereby limiting contact between infected patients and healthcare workers.  

As part of a recent trend, a team of young Nigerian students developed an AI-controlled robot named Mairobot, to take temperature readings and administer contactless delivery of drugs to COVID-19 patients in an institutional care setting. Using cameras and navigating using an X-Box game pack and Maker-Fire VR headset, the robot attends to patients at their bedsides, again minimizing the risk of exposure for frontline care providers.

Low-Tech Pragmatism

For large-scale use in developing countries, however, low-tech solutions are more economically feasible and have a greater potential of reaching a larger population. Low-tech, or lower-tech, solutions are needed for those that do not have access to significant technological infrastructures in order to benefit from other innovations, as well as for those where there is a gap in digital literacy. Examples of low-tech solutions are those that use text/SMS and voice calls that do not require smartphone technologies. In Liberia, SMS is being used to connect the Ministry of Health to healthcare workers in rural areas fighting the pandemic. In addition, start-up companies such as, Eneza Education are providing SMS-based education in Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana.

Pivoting Digital Personal Assistance Technologies

Additionally, retrofitted Digital Personal Assistance Technologies (DPAs) remain another relevant technological development essential to COVID-19 management in Africa. With DPA technologies, self-isolating could be a lot easier as little errands can be accomplished through voice commands such as checking the door, picking up drooped off items, and such like. That way, the technologies helps in minimizing the temptation by individuals to unconsciously break from isolation, reducing the rate at which they are likely to compromise their isolation and spread the virus to the general public. Pandemic-inspired retrofitted DPA technologies will also be relevant in hospital settings, to reduce the proximity amount of physical interaction between COVID-19 patients and frontline health workers.

In hospital settings, governments should be at the forefront of supplying DPA or related technologies in order to support the fight against COVID-19. Due to financial constraints faced by hospitals in Africa, however, this would only be possible through government funding and, perhaps, some form of public private partnerships. In this regard, an aspirational approach is for this technology be mainstreamed into healthcare services delivery in one form or another. Digital Personal Assistant technologies could specifically be used in emergency wards to assist patients’ requests for needed help from caregivers within mutually safe protocols. DPAs could reduce the rate at which healthcare workers interact with patients and the chances of health workers contracting the virus in the course of providing care.     

Adaptation of DPA technologies may be a longshot as technological priority in the African context today in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrofitted DPA technologies can operate automatically with smartphones, however, the majority of Africans do not own smartphones. Therefore, the integration of these technologies in smartphones, in order to provide relief during COVID-19, would likely cater to an urban-dwelling elite population.

In addition, Digital Personal Assistance technologies would be limited due to weak technological infrastructure and economic constraints. With more pandemics being predicated by experts, however, now is time to get prepared, drawing from the lessons of COVD-19.  In the years to come, with the continued development of the technological infrastructure in Africa, DPA technologies would be useful in information dissemination and in helping to provide healthcare in crises. Africa, and indeed the rest of the world, would benefit from investing in developing digital infrastructures for many other socio-economic reasons as well, such as the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Africa’s Potential in Digital Health 

Through these digital health solutions, we see different types of technologies emerging in Africa to help fight the pandemic. These include such things as the use of contact tracing applications for data analytics, applications for health education, the deployment of drones as health care delivery tools, and low tech mobile solutions used to bridge the digital gap. As Africa becomes more and more connected, especially in terms of mobile capabilities, the potential for technological and economic growth is robust. This is one of the lessons of the unending COVID-19 pandemic.