COVID-19 Accelerates Ghana's E-Health Revolution
As of April 6, Ghana had recorded 214 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and five deaths, out of a global count of 1.34m infections and 74,600 fatalities.
The government has responded comparatively quickly to the global pandemic: on March 17 it barred entry for all travellers – excluding Ghanaian nationals – who had visited a country with more than 200 confirmed Covid-19 infections.
A mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travellers was instituted at the same time, with 1030 people isolated and tested regularly, 10% of whom tested positive during this period.
On March 22 the country closed its land borders, while on March 30, when the number of confirmed cases stood at fewer than 200, Ghana imposed a two-week partial lockdown in the two major metropolitan areas of Accra and Kumasi.
These lockdowns allow residents of the affected areas to go to food markets, petrol stations, and banks, but notably, provide no exemption for religious services and include a ban on mass gatherings for funerals.
The country has been exposed to epidemics in the recent past, including several cholera outbreaks and a successful effort to prevent the spread of Ebola between 2013-16.
This is widely thought to have contributed to Ghana’s ability to conduct enhanced testing and screening at points of entry, and has likely sensitised the population to the severity of the current outbreak.
Economic impact and response
Keenly aware of the economic risk the crisis poses to the country, the administration of President Nana Akufo-Addo and the Bank of Ghana has quickly responded with a host of monetary and fiscal measures.
On March 18 the central bank was the first in sub-Saharan Africa to cut the monetary policy rate, which it reduced from 16% to 14.5%. This was accompanied by other measures to boost liquidity, including a lowering of the reserve requirement and the reduction of capital adequacy rates.
The country has also requested support from the IMF and the World Bank, as officials attempt to close a looming financing gap in the 2020 budget.
Given that Ghana’s economy is exposed to current demand fluctuations in the oil and tourism sectors, and that exports such as gold and cocoa have also been negatively affected by the pandemic, the government is likely to authorise withdrawals from the state's oil-funded Ghana Stabilisation Fund.
Healthtech tackles Covid-19
As the fight against the virus continues, a number of domestic and Pan-African health care start-ups have built on recent innovations to help tackle new challenges posed by Covid-19.
In the pharmaceutical retail space, Ghanaian start-up mPharma, which last year acquired Kenya’s second-largest pharmaceutical chain, Haltons, has been using technology to address inefficiencies in supply chains, with the aim of lowering drug prices.
As Covid-19 began to cause global disruptions in drug supply chains, subsequently threatening the supply of important medicine in Ghana, in mid-March mPharma launched a price control programme called ‘Mutti Keep My Price’.
The initiative allows patients in need of chronic disease medication to continue paying the same price for their prescriptions for up to six months, regardless of market prices.
Elsewhere, the nascent telemedicine space – which allows for the distribution of health-related services via electronic and telecommunication methods – is also expected to see increased demand as a result of Covid- 19.
In 2016 the Ministry of Health and Ghana Health Service, in conjunction with the Swiss Novartis Foundation, began setting up a series of teleconsultation centres as part of its e-health strategy.
Since then, other private players have entered the space.
Talamus Health, active in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa since 2018, provides a platform for patients to connect with health care providers. The company is currently offering video appointment services for free as the major cities remain in lockdown, and has experienced a spike in activity as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“We have had a lot of new facilities sign up with us to leverage our telemedicine feature and deliver healthcare to the general public. This includes those under the government-imposed partial lockdown, as well as those in self-isolation – all of whom need access to health care,” Joshua Owusu-Ansah, country lead of Talamus Health Ghana, told OBG.
Another e-health player, Redbird, a start-up with a focus on rapid testing, has also been able to use its technology to help minimise patient interactions.
In late March it launched the ‘COVID-19 Daily Check-in App and Symptom Tracker’, which allows patients to self-report potential virus symptoms to health care professionals. The app is expected to alleviate pressure on hospitals and provide remote triage.
Meanwhile, medical drone delivery company Zipline has also been able to adjust its model to suit the immediate needs of communities and health care specialists during the pandemic.
The drone delivery service was initially tailored to emergency blood and anti-venom deliveries in remote areas, but the company has been able to work with local authorities to provide supportive treatments including antibiotics, hydration, and fever and pain relief to reduce Covid-19 related mortality, with plans to deliver vaccines and test kits as they become available.
As a result, the service has helped to prevent overcrowding at hospitals and has bolstered attempts to enforce effective social distancing.
Established industry players in Ghana have also become aware of the potential for disruption caused by technology, and have already adjusted their plans accordingly by investing more in digital infrastructure.
In January a merger of three of the country’s pharmaceutical companies – Dannex, Ayrton Drug Manufacturing, and Starwin Products – resulted in the establishment of DAS Pharma, now the largest drug company in Ghana.
Talking to local media at the time of the merger, CEO Daniel Apeagyei Kissi emphasised the importance of taking advantage of new technological trends in the industry.
“Consumer and customer needs are changing, industry players are integrating vertically, dealer-owned brands are appearing on the market and technology is manifesting in online pharmacies, electronic payment, online health care systems [and] online doctors,” he said.
Agreeing with the sentiment, Owusu-Ansah believes that e-health solutions should experience significant growth moving forward.
“Covid-19 highlights the inefficiencies in the health care sector, largely run by the government, and for a long time seen by technology enthusiasts as an unattractive sector to venture into,” he told OBG. “Given the scale of this pandemic – and its direct and indirect impact on the global economy and daily life – I expect it will encourage more to venture into healthtech.”