Africa is Now Cut Off from Critical Resources Needed to Fight COVID, Michael Leventhal, RobotsMali
African development is hampered by a lack of domestic manufacturing capability and a poor network of supply routes for imports both from other continents and, to an even greater extent, within the continent itself. The situation is particularly bad in my country, Mali, which is not only land-locked, but also lacks a good road system. Transportation costs are in large measure the reason why we must pay approximately two times the going price in the US for manufactured goods. We are developing industry and producing more and more goods "Made in Mali" but as most of the materials needed for the manufacturing process are also imported there are few such products that can be competitively priced.
This has been our challenge in good times. In good times, it might takes 6 weeks to obtain a replacement part for a piece of equipment. We've been increasingly employing on-demand manufacturing technologies such as 3-D printing to lessen interruptions in local manufacturing.
As COVID-19 began to menace our country, we recognized that our minuscule stocks of PPE and medical equipment would be quickly exhausted. We have 56 ventilators for a population approaching 20 million. The Malian government does not have the means to buy equipment at the scale required by the pandemic (and certainly not the means to compete with richer countries frantically purchasing on the world market) and foreign aid from countries already hard pressed will not meet the need. We knew that we must, as best we are able, rely on our own resources. We formed a group of technologists, COVID-MALI, handy with 3D-printers, electronics, robotics, software, and manufacturing technologies and, with the support of technologists in other countries, started to figure out what we could do to help our country survive the virus.
We've fabricated face shields and gowns, disposable and non-disposable masks, sanitizing robots and even a respirator. If respirators and other critical medical equipment break down, we have the capability to create replacement parts. Some of our designs are medical-grade, others are more improvised but would be infinitely better than nothing. It is not enough, but we can contribute to saving lives.
Except that we can't. Just as the number of cases in Mali has started to climb, we have exhausted all our raw materials as supply routes by air have been almost entirely severed and land routes severely impinged. Commercial flights that carried the vast majority of air shipments are suspended. Land routes are constricted; in any case, materials shipped oversea and overland may take weeks or months to arrive. We are reduced, in fact, to a single lifeline, DHL. Not much of a lifeline for a developing country: for example, six kilograms of filament used by a 3D-printer, costing approximately $120, costs between $375 and $1400 to ship to Mali, depending on the origin. And, no, DHL is not offering any COVID-19 relief discounts.
The world seems to be reluctant to understand the lesson of COVID-19 – that someone elses crisis is my crisis. We are all in this together. If we cannot hold off COVID-19 in Africa the entire world will continue to be threatened by re-propagation of the virus. The prolongation of the COVID-19 pandemic may be only the first wave of a greater health, economic and humanitarian crisis that could be triggered by the escalation of Africa's other pandemics : malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, malnutrion, economic insecurity, and jihadism. These problems will exacerbate as the ability of governments and workers to react is impacted by widespread illness and a lack of PPE. Embassy staff and foreign aid workers have left Africa in the last weeks in droves and some existing aid programs have been diverted to each donor country's domestic crisis – logical individual responses but, potentially, collective suicide.
The most immediate problem that we are facing is one that is fixable – the supply chain. We are ready to fight, but our survival, and maybe yours, depends on being able to engineer enough coordination and cooperation between our nations to keep supply lines open. If the rest of the world turns away from Africa to focus on their own challenges, it is especially critical that those of us who are fighting here are not deprived of every weapon we need to avert calamity.
Michael Leventhal, Directeur, RobotsMali, Bamako, Mali