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Covid destruction could lead to a total reshaping of sub-Saharan Africa healthcare

By Yariv Chen, Ignite Partner. Published in The New Times

Although it might be hard to believe, it’s been more than a year since the initial reports of the mysterious coronavirus arrived from China, and our world was forever changed. Since then, we witnessed unprecedented scientific and medical research, with teams from around the world collaborating and sharing knowledge in order to learn as much as possible about the virus. But despite the tremendous efforts, there is still a lot we don’t know, especially when looking at its long-term side effects.

When examining the pandemic in a broader sense, the picture is similar. While its immediate influence on the financial, medical, and cultural spheres is clear, the long-term effects are still a mystery. Only one thing is certain and that is that nothing will be the same, with long-term effects expected to shape life in almost every country around the world in the near future.

While Covid-19 took over entire countries during 2020, health systems all over the world were faced with a cease and desist for their everyday activities. Budgets were diverted into detection and treatment of the global pandemic, people stopped coming to clinics and hospitals to diagnose classic diseases, funds stopped purring in, medical teams were exhausted, and people remained in their homes, scared and under-diagnosed. This reality was true for almost all countries in the world, but was ever more noticeable in the developing world, and especially in SSA.

The burden that was put on health systems world wide was much more noticeable in the region, where health care was already at a fragile state. Countless countries are now facing a double challenge of protecting their citizens against Covid, while they try and fight existing threats including HIV, Tuberculosis, and of course, Malaria.

Decades of development are eradicated

During 2020, Africa witnessed 56,740 Covid mortality cases, and over 400,000 from Malaria. This number is outrageous, and shows the great significance of remembering other diseases, and of not focusing solely on Covid. Malaria is transmitted by infected mosquitoes, causes high fever, multiple organ failure, and death, with children under the age of 5 being the most vulnerable, unlike Covid which is more dangerous for alderly patients. Africa’s population is the youngest in the world, so that is another important detail to take under consideration.

Mosquitos don’t practise social distancing, they don’t wear masks either“says Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and a long-time donner and developer of human development projects across Africa. “As covid spread around the globe it’s important to remember that deadly mosquito-borne diseases like malaria haven’t taken a break during this pandemic”.

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), Africa carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden and in 2019, the region was home to 94% of global malaria cases and deaths. The continent has been in a decades-long battle with the disease, and since 2000 1.5 billion cases and 7.6 million malaria deaths have been averted through the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs) and indoor residual spraying.

And then came Covid. In the World Malaria Report 2020, the WHO says that 20 years worth of progress is now hampered by the global pandemic, the global 2020 target for reducing malaria cases will be missed by 37% and the mortality reduction target will be missed by 22%. This means millions of patients, and hundreds of thousands of mortalities.

Thinking ahead, with billions to spare

The United Nations estimates that African countries will need at least $200 billion to cope with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Just imagine what this sum, or even half of it, could do if invested in restructuring of the healthcare sector in a way that could better deal with future challenges. And when focusing on Sub Saharan Africa, that thought becomes ever clearer.

Health care is one of the biggest challenges of the region, with primitive or non-existent infrastructure, and only 2.2 doctor per 10,000 people, less than 1/6 of the global average. Morbidity and mortality from both communicable and non-communicable disease is the highest in the world across the region, and with over 90% of properly trained medical staff working in the big cities and hospitals, small rural clinics are severely understaffed. Malaria is one of the biggest burdens on the already malfunctioning system. To get diagnosed, people stand in long lines for hours, and only a skilled doctor can diagnose them, using an invasive blood test and hours of microscope work. The process is long and inefficient, and the lack of medical staff and proper facilities is definitely not helping.

With billions of dollars going to prevention, detection, and treatment for Malaria, investing in long-term infrastructure solutions is essential in fighting the deadly disease, and in reshaping healthcare in the region.

Covid may have had a destructive effect on the medical sector, but it also accelerated technology development across borders, shining a light on the vast potential of medical technology to affect hundreds of millions of lives.

AI, computer vision, robotics, wearables, and much more, are establishing advanced diagnostics, monitoring, and treatment that were only imaginable a year ago. These advancements are not only for the western hemisphere, and should be implemented in the developing world, where the effects could be far more crucial. Sub Saharan Africa is the region in the dire need, where these novel technologies are not “nice to have” but essential in creating a viable health care system. With AI solutions and connectivity that allows assistance from global medical teams, better diagnostics and treatment could be a game changer across the region.

A reshaping of healthcare in SSA is a must, and could very well be a positive outcome of Covid, and a step forward for hundreds of millions of people, in the path to a better, more inclusive future.

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