On the Front Line: Anti-Epidemic Robots in Rwanda in Action

August 31, 2020

Illustration of Ikizere in action at Kanyinya Health Center. Artist: Shaloom Mutezimana

By Christa Uwamahoro Munezero, Vaster Kanyesigye, and Elizabeth Mutamba

Safety first

Six years ago, the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone taught us many lessons including how critical it is to protect frontline health workers from the risk of infection. A report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that health workers were between 21 and 32 times more likely to be infected than people in the general adult population. Another article by Green Andrew published in the Lancet journal “Remembering health workers who died from Ebola in 2014” highlights that out of 17000 cases of Ebola virus in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, approximately 600 were health-care providers and more than half of them died.

As Rwanda was gearing up to fight Covid19, the UNDP Rwanda Accelerator Lab collaborated with the Ministry of ICT and Innovation to identify strategies and innovations to protect medical workers treating Covid19-infected patients. One main area of focus was on how to minimize contact between health workers and patients.

WHO’s Covid19 infection prevention guidelines advise to maintain at least one-meter distance. However, taking care of patients involves several activities that require physical contact – from providing medication to patients to regularly monitoring patients’ symptoms, and attending to their needs. These are the areas that our anti-epidemic robots’ Urumuri, Ikizere, Akazuba, Mwiza and Ngabo were designed for. These robots sourced from Zorabots Africa aim to complement the work of medical personnel and reduce the risk of Covid19 infection by helping take body temperatures and delivering video messages between doctors and patients.

Robotic technologies in healthcare had never been used in Rwanda; so it was new and intriguing experience for medical staff as well as for patients. Medical personnel were also trained to operate the robots to ensure successful deployment and proper usage.

In an interview by Reuters, Dr. David Turatsinze from Kanyinya Health Center mentioned “prior to using the robots, medical staff would visit patients between three to four times per day. However, with the robots in place, they do two visits per day. 

Urumuri deployed to support real-time awareness of Covid19 preventive measures

It has been five months since Rwanda registered its first Covid19 patient. Various strategies have been put in place to flatten the curve of Covid19 infection.

Combatting Covid19 requires strong health systems but it also requires everyone to play a role in taking all necessary precautions such as frequently washing or sanitizing hands, properly wearing facemasks, and avoiding close contact with others. These preventive actions are relatively new in the Rwandan culture and society, and there is a need for constant reminders to adhere to these guidelines.

When the Kigali International Airport resumed commercial flights on August 1, 2020, Urumuri, one of the robots provided by UNDP, has been deployed at the airport to remind incoming passengers of the Covid19 guidelines recommended by the WHO and the Rwanda Ministry of Health. Urumuri helps in rapidly checking the temperatures of dozens of travelers, and detects passengers and airport staff who are not wearing facemasks or not wearing them correctly.

What’s next?

Covid19 brought the global travel and tourism industry to a halt, heavily impacting Rwanda’s MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing, Exhibitions) industry. In an interview with the New Times, the Chief Executive Officer of the Rwanda Convention Bureau, Ms. Nelly Mukazayire, stated that 20 conferences that were scheduled for March and April had been postponed, which was estimated to generate $8 million in revenue. 

As Rwanda is working to contain the virus, the country is, concurrently, strategizing to revive its economy by enabling the MICE sector to reopen.  The UNDP Rwanda Accelerator Lab is currently exploring an idea of using robots to disinfect public places. In addition, for conferences, the Lab believes that robots can also be used to collect digital data during registration and check-ins in order to reduce the risk of Covid19 transmission.

The road to recovery will need new approaches and ways to do things. It will require all of us to think big and experiment with ideas that can help countries respond to and overcome the challenges and disruptions caused by Covid19

Our UNDP accelerator lab, while exploring many ideas, is also focusing on the use of technology to combat Covid19 to support countries like Rwanda, to recover and build back better.  #Tuzatsinda 

(#Tuzatsinda is a Kinyarwanda word, which means we shall overcome)

Illustration of Urumuri at Kigali International Airport reminding passengers to follow Covid19 prevention measures. Artist: Shaloom Mutezimana