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"Medical technology is Africa’s best chance for fighting COVID-19"

By Angela Homsi & Yariv Cohen. Published on The New Times

For the past few weeks, the scenario we all feared is starting to materialize. Every day, more COVID-19 patients are discovered in various countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, in an exponential rate.

The growing numbers of both patients and affected countries leave many international experts awake at night, fearing the realization of their nightmare: a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus across Sub-Saharan Africa, one that the local health system will not be able to handle.

World Health Organization Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently cautioned: “We have seen how the virus accelerates after a certain tipping point. So the best advice for Africa is to prepare for the worst - and prepare today.”

The World Health Organization’s concerns about the spread of the virus in Africa is substantial, and for a good reason. As we have seen in various countries including Spain and the US, widespread expansion may result in a large number of severely ill patients in only days, needing immediate advanced medical assistance. And when that is the case, even advanced and well-funded medical sectors collapse. This is what we are now witnessing in Italy. In Africa, where the public health system is much less advanced, the results can be far more severe.

Therefore, African governments are now faced with two challenges: first, prevent the continued spread of the virus. To do this, many countries have decided on strict social distancing policies to try and stop people from spreading the virus.

Unfortunately, even the most optimistic scenarios do not predict a complete cessation of the coronavirus, but social distancing can drastically slow down the rate of spread, thus significantly reducing the number of severely ill patients. The lower this number is, the more likely the health care system will be able to deal with the situation. If this number keeps rising, local hospitals will more likely be unable to cope, and many patients won’t get the treatment they need.

For that reason, the second challenge governments face is the immediate improvement of the health care system, and more specifically, the number of ventilators available. As the majority of COVID-19 patients in critical condition require artificial respiration, governments all over the world are making extreme efforts to obtain more ventilators. The mayor of New York recently appealed for 30,000 additional respirators, in order to meet the city’s needs during the crisis.

In Africa, such numbers are a faraway dream. In Liberia, which has a population of 5 million people, only 3 respirators are available (!). In Mali, the number is about 20. And in South Africa, which enjoys one of the continent’s most advanced health sectors, there are approximately 3,000 ventilators for 60 million people. In most sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers tend to be closer to Liberia’s 3, and in order to bridge the gap, we need nothing short of a miracle.

Fortunately, such a miracle is actually possible. I’m not talking about a divine miracle that will stop the virus (for that kind of miracle we can do nothing but pray), but a technological one. Many teams of technology experts around the world are investing tremendous resources and efforts these days to find technological solutions that will provide affordable and scalable solutions and support people all over the world during the COVID-19 war.

For example, given the tremendous need for ventilators all over the world (and especially Africa), traditional manufacturers are not able to meet the growing demand. Therefore, various teams have begun to develop prototypes for respirators that can be assembled locally, quickly, and affordably. Recently, an MIT team and technicians from the Israeli Air Force have already announced advanced development of such prototypes, with its manuals soon to be published for free to anyone who wants to manufacture machines in an independent lab or factory.

Those machines will be made up of accessible and affordable components, and the open-source manual will allow local labs to produce thousands of ventilators in a short amount of time. And while ventilators are needed the most, other technological developments can also help the effort, providing solutions to various needs. Quick and cheap virus testings, technological tools to enforce social distancing, and more: all can support the local governments and provide the means to fight the coronavirus.

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