The global COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges to healthcare service provision. The shortage of equipment, facilities and supplies to handle its spread necessitated rapid response as communities, businesses and economies were tested on almost every possible front. As the dust settles, Jabulile Nhlapo, Healthcare Lead & Principal Associate for WSP in Africa, considers the lessons learnt and the opportunities to preserve what was built in the healthcare arena.

During the pandemic, a number of interventions were put in place to promote the best possible scenario outcome for communities to survive, together. Across Africa, and around the world, large open-space venues were repurposed to manage the surge in infections in the face of immense uncertainty. WSP’s healthcare experts were among those who helped clients to prepare and respond in the short- and medium-term, while planning for every possible scenario in the long-term.

Amid these uncertain times, we drew on our long-established healthcare network to apply lessons learnt to our local context. We learnt to design and build facilities that could provide the necessary services, quickly. We learnt how to help our clients and communities prepare for a rapidly changing future and unforeseeable events.

As we look back now, perhaps the most important lesson for all of us in healthcare service provision is that it is possible to reach communities in which infrastructure tends to be lacking. If you have a clear idea of the necessary services, and a good plan for delivering those services, rural communities needn’t be left without access to primary care.

Testing facilities that are focused on prevalent yet treatable diseases, like malaria for example, can go a long way towards enabling basic, first-response care where it’s needed. Similarly, other non-communicable diseases, like diabetes, heart and lung diseases and cancer are a growing issue that we are not adequately prepared for on the continent. In many rural communities, illnesses that needn’t be life-threatening are not addressed early enough because the patient lacks access to care and advice.

By the time they are ill enough to spend the money and travel long distances to the nearest hospital, their illness has likely become serious enough to be dangerous. So, could we apply the lessons from COVID-19 to establish testing centres and medical care facilities for known illnesses in these communities, and so enable earlier treatment?

Remote communities

Another important lesson is that in remote communities, functional facilities are better than state-of-the-art when the alternative is nothing. As built environment professionals, we must help our clients find the balance between leveraging on trends in digitalisation and sustainability to ensure cost-effective facilities that are purpose-built to meet the community’s needs.

To put this into context, our team has noted that there is a growing number of new medical precincts being developed in various parts of the continent. The aim is that these medical precincts will become regional centres of excellence, and thereby reduce the number of citizens needing to travel out of the continent for major procedures and treatment. There will thus be increased intracontinental specialist healthcare provision, which also aligns with the goal of creating a continent-wide market for the trade of goods and services.

Expanding on this, the smaller satellite and rural facilities also being developed will support closing the gaps within the overall healthcare eco-system.

Finally, we have learnt much about planning in the face of uncertainty. We have also had to think about how to design for the eventuality of a pandemic in our current hospitals and buildings designs. For example, for some projects we have designed a “Pandemic Mode” into the mechanical services to ensure the building is future proofed.

Coming through a pandemic has shifted the designer’s mindset into thinking even more about the adaptability of current solutions. The client is also more open to understanding how their facilities can be ‘future-proofed’, even in the case where it involves a slight cost increase or additional system control measures.

It may be tempting to discard our pandemic experience. It was, after all, a traumatic time for all of humanity and one that we (understandably) may want to forget. But there are both lessons, and physical facilities, that we would do well to preserve.

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