Virtual Doctors in Crisis Situations – The African Context

Early last year, West Africa saw the worst Ebola outbreak ever recorded in human history. Horrific image of bodies strewn across city streets and ailing patients in crowded makeshift hospital quarantines filled television screens across the world. A year later, the bustling metropolis of Johannesburg, South Africa went into frenzy as cases of the highly infectious typhoid fever and an eventual fatality were reported. Epidemics of different forms are a reality that most have to contend with. A lot of infrastructure and financial support is continually dedicated to mitigating the devastating effects of such disasters across the world. It is however difficult to contain highly communicable diseases, stretching economies and resources to breaking point in the process. The Zika virus that has ravaged South America in recent months is a prime example of how devastating a pandemic can be, despite immense intervention. The American Administration for instance looked to devote a total of $1.9 billion dollars towards combating the virusᶛ.

The afore – mentioned cases clearly illustrate the fact that the traditional approach to disaster response has its limitations. To begin with, poor transport networks and road infrastructure make it difficult to reach infected individuals in dire need of medical assistance. In Sierra Leone, for instance, ‘’inadequate road networks and infrastructure’’ resulted in some patients waiting at home for up to 6 days for a diagnosis, ‘’all the while leaving their families at risk of further infection.’’ᶞ A similar pattern can be observed in most of the “developing economies” in Africa, Asia and South America. While waiting for the relevant governments to develop better road networks may be a tedious effort, there can be an effective alternative. Introducing virtual doctors in Africa could make a great, positive difference in the lives that may be saved during times of outbreaks

Zimbabwe, a country in Sub – Saharan Africa went through a terrible cholera outbreak in 2008.    Once a bustling and growing state, economic ruin and a dysfunctional political framework systematically led to the country’s health sector deteriorating to deplorable conditions. At the time of the epidemic, the conditions in the country were described as having caused ‘’an unprecedented deterioration of healthcare infrastructure, loss of healthcare sector personnel and a drastic decline in the quality of health services available for the population.’’໊ Poor sanitation and access to clean water led to the disease quickly spreading across major cities and rural areas. The country was totally unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude and intensity. At Mutambara Hospital, a rural hospital in the eastern province of Manicaland, the writer witnessed diseased individuals, wrapped in refuse bags, being taken to designated burial sites, in wheelbarrows. These casualties were transported through neighborhoods populated by families, children and all. The risk to the surrounding community was heightened because of the lack of preparedness and capacity to deal with the crisis. In contrast, the presence of a virtual Doctor would have been a clever and efficient way to provide medical assistance while safeguarding the health of those in the vicinity.

Another application of virtual doctors in Africa has to do with safety and security. It is no secret that war, turmoil, civil strife and violence have been a vice that has plagued nations the world over. Africa has not been spared of this scourge either. Civilian insecurity takes many forms, sometimes state organized and at other times spontaneous. Regardless, life does not come to a halt and people make the most of whatever situation they find themselves in. In the year 2008 and 2015, violent xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals residing in South Africa erupted across the country. Lives were viciously taken, property destroyed and many displaced. In such situations both immigrants and sympathizers were looked at with disdain. Rendering medical aid to this sect of the South African society changed from being a routine appointment to a life threatening act overnight. Once again, employing virtual doctors in such a scenario would have made it possible for practitioners to reach needy patients sheltered in crisis centers across the country safely.

Whether it is to overcome infrastructural barriers or ensure the safety of the practitioner, the applicability of virtual doctors in Africa is undeniable. Crisis and epidemics are weaved into the history of Africa and will probably continue to be a risk facing a large part of the continental population. Rather than to solely depend on an over – subscribed medical framework battling numerous challenges, the innovation of virtual Doctors could go a long way in controlling and possibly preventing the spread of such outbreaks in future. Follow us on Twitter and find out what others are saying about virtual Doctors in Africa


ᶛ  Senate Approves $1.1 Billion in Emergency Zika Funding. The Wallstreet Journal, 2016/05/17 :
ᶞ A Long Way to Go: The Ebola response in West Africa at the sixty day mark. OXFAM,
໊Zimbabwe – Global Health Workforce Alliance. WHO,



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