Unleashing robots in Rwanda’s war against COVID-19

Robots are being deployed to the front line in Rwanda's raging war against the novel coronavirus with officials saying this…

Robots are being deployed to the front line in Rwanda’s raging war against the novel coronavirus with officials saying this trail-blazing innovation could minimise if not eliminate the risk of infection for health workers treating people with the virus.This cutting-edge digital technology guarantees that healthcare workers and medical doctors in this small country in the Great Lakes Region are to be replaced with robots while attending to patients admitted in hospital with COVID-19.

With the capacity to screen between 50 to 150 people per minute, the robots capture both video and audio data, and notify officers on duty about detected abnormalities for timely response and case management.

Earlier this week, one of the COVID-19 treatment facility located at Kanyinya, a suburb of Kigali, received five high-tech humanoid robotic machines to perform a number of tasks related to COVID-19 management, including mass temperature screening, delivering food and medication to the sick, capturing data, and detecting those not wearing masks,  among other functions.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week in Kigali, Dr Ngamije said that the idea of using the robots is aimed at reducing exposure of health workers to possible Covid-19 infection.

Since the pandemic began, there have been reports around the world about health workers being infected with the virus while treating patients.

“Medics and other front-liners visit patients many times to deliver medication, meals, and carry out tests, among other things – and this may pose a risk of contracting the virus,” he said.

ZaroBots Africa, a company that manufactures the most advanced humanoid robots in the fields of health and education, designed the five robots.

According to the Director General of the Rwanda Biomedical  Center (RBC), Dr Sabin Nsanzimana the humanoid robots were especially introduced to assist doctors in the front line of COVID-19 response. 

Dr  Nsanzimana explained that yet they have a multitasking role, adding that the major purpose of this new robotic technology in the control of coronavirus is to help save health practitioners from both catching and spreading the disease.

“They have the task of making the response effective, by monitoring patients, providing medicines in their rooms and capturing information relating to their health situation,” he said.

Rwanda has so far recorded only one case of a doctor testing positive for COVID-19, and health officials take delight in noticing that the fact that these humanoid machines deployed to aid the fight against the virus cannot be infected is a great achievement.

This is because the readings from the machines allow medics to stay out of a patient’s room and monitor everything about vital signs on computer screens and can communicate with each other in separate rooms.

Among other technological innovations currently being experimented in Rwanda’s health sector especially in the COVID-19 control and prevention is artificial intelligence where machines would take over from humans.

Already drones are used to supply medical items to patients in regions in Rwanda not readily accessible by other motorable means. 

Medical experts say that lack of personal protective gears in most cases and infections from patients to doctors was a major concern for medical practitioners in treating coronavirus.

According to the acting chairperson of the association, Dr. Jean Claude Murenzi, a  medical doctor based in Kigali, these innovations are bringing new solutions, as access to personal protective equipment for health workers remains a key concern in Rwanda and elsewhere in the treatment of COVID-19. 

“But there is a need to introduce low-cost innovative solutions that treat life-threatening conditions [for healthcare practitioners] when every second counts” Dr Murenzi told APA in an exclusive interview.

Cloth face coverings are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE) because their capability to protect healthcare personnel (HCP) has not been verified, experts say.

However, some health workers in Rwanda continue to complain about the quality of protective equipment being provided to them.

“Some of these protective masks and clothes are not designed to serve the purpose at COVID-19 health facilities,” one physician who works with one of the government hospitals designated to treat COVID-19 patients told APA on condition of anonymity.

The robots are the result of joint efforts by the Rwandan Ministry of ICT and Innovation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

“The infectious nature of COVID-19 calls for technological innovations to tackle the pandemic. This is why Rwanda has introduced robots and drones among other high-tech initiatives to enhance efficiency in the fight,”  ICT and Innovation Minister Paula Ingabire said.

Rwanda, a major innovation and technology hub in Africa, has recorded 314 coronavirus cases so far, with zero deaths and 216 recoveries, according  to latest official figures.