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Drones, Ghanaian politics and my bottle of beer

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Many Ghanaians who are familiar with drones have encountered these wonderful little machines at weddings, funerals or other social events, where they hover in the skies capturing amazing panoramic views of the occasion.

Of course, within a single generation, and certainly within the last 30 odd years since I left secondary school, technology has developed in leaps and bounds and revolutionised almost every single aspect of our lives, and increasingly, drones are becoming a part of our lives.

Maybe drones will soon be delivering our lunches and dinners to our offices and homes, an upgrade from the current situation of helmeted motorbike riders weaving through traffic with aplomb to do the delivery.

Maybe, just maybe, one day I can sit on my verandah and order a cold beer from a bar, whereupon they can load it into a refrigerated box attached to a drone, enter some coordinates and voila, it zooms with the precision of a guided missile towards my residence and drops the bottle lightly on my coffee table.

Fantastic.

When it comes to technology, nothing is a pipe dream of absurd fantasy.

Over the past week or so, political swords have been unsheathed in the aftermath of the government initiative to employ drones to deliver emergency medication and blood supplies to remote areas in the country.

The opposition rattled its sabre and howled that the figures were absurd.

Government functionaries insinuated that the opposition elements had fundamental challenges with figures and financial analysis. The battle was on.

Then literally everyone lined up on either side of the battle lines. And then the screaming and baying intensified.

In the melee, health data has been thrown out, references made to drone use in other countries and their impact, and finance experts have emerged overnight, seeking to prise apart the figures.

I am no health or finance expert, so I like to keep such things simple and splash around in the shallow part of the ‘debate’ (shouting match?) pool rather than pretend to be an ace swimmer and get drowned in the deep end.

Simply put, government says that there is a need to ensure effective supply of medical products and logistics, especially essential supplies and blood pints to hard-to-reach areas.

It says that, for instance, although maternal mortality rate has reduced, 30 per cent of such deaths is as a result of bleeding, and that this would not be the case if the technology existed to supply blood pints to remote areas.

Apparently a committee of various stakeholders sent delegations to Rwanda to learn from a similar system in place.

It is said that we are not paying for the drones but rather the technological services that the company being contracted, Zipline, will provide in delivering supplies.

Fierce and caustic

Those opposing this project have been fierce and caustic.

Some argue it is not needed at all, and that we should concentrate on building roads to access remote areas, providing ambulances, building more health facilities and providing trained personnel, among others.

‘Misplaced priorities’ is the preferred language.

Others criticise the financing model and say it is not value for money, and that less could have been spent to achieve the same, or even better results in terms of the lives to be saved.

Yet others have an issue with the procurement angle, particularly whether it should have been sole-sourced.

I struggle to find anyone who can seriously argue that drones do not save lives, when the evidence is clear from other countries that have engaged same.

But to argue that we should first build roads et al before we think of drones is to suggest that these can literally spring up overnight.

In arguing about getting the roads in shape first, let us not pretend there is zilch progress on road-building.

A cursory perusal of the 2019 budget makes provision for roads, as indeed have almost every budget we have seen in this country.

In arguing for ambulances first, again follow the budget. Provision is made.

Essentially, what this argument suggests is that while you are building roads and procuring ambulances and trying to build health facilities and train and deploy personnel, do not think of any other process that can actually save lives here and now.

I find it wholly absurd.

Maybe they would rather we said to the mother somewhere in the remote part of the Afram Plains, who has just delivered, is bleeding and desperately needs blood as soon as possible, is “sorry darling, we are building the road to get here, and ambulances are on the way into Ghana, so don’t worry, we will get to you. Meanwhile, forget about drones bringing you blood because that would be a misplaced priority.”

A desperate, dying patient is a priority, full stop, and should never ever be described as misplaced.

Perhaps if you have not really been to a remote part of Ghana, it is easy to take for granted some of the things that come to us almost effortlessly in Accra and other big towns.

If your relative is in an Accra hospital and needs blood urgently, it is relatively easy to jump into your car or a taxi, zoom across town, buy the blood and return.

Of course, it is not the most ideal of situations, but put yourself in the shoes of the poor relatives of a patient in a remote part of Ghana and you may begin to count your blessings.

Arguments

This ‘build the hospitals and get the ambulances first’ argument reminds me of the claim by some that increasing access to senior high schools through the Free Senior High School policy, and using the double-track system to handle the surge in the interim is a ‘misplaced priority (that hackneyed expression again) because you have to build the classrooms and dormitories first.

In other words, deny some children access and ask them to mark time until you have finished building all your new classrooms and other facilities.

By the time you are ready for them, they would have drifted into other ventures and you would have lost them to the system.

It is possible to work towards improving infrastructure and use drone technology to save lives in emergencies at the same time, just as it is possible to get more children into school today while working on improving infrastructure.

It is not an ‘either A or B’ situation, and hardly a rocket science.

The bottom line is that drones save lives, especially in remote areas.

We can of course have a fierce ‘value for money’ debate. And as citizens, it is right that we do. But there should be no debate on the important role drones play in saving lives.

In all of this, I am reminded of the biblical parable of the lost sheep.

All life is sacrosanct, whether that of a rich person propped up on a comfortable bed in a private hospital in Accra and hooked to expensive machines, or of a poor farmer lying on a tattered mat or on a rickety bed in a remote health facility.

There is no price to human life. I will raise a bottle of cold beer to this truth any day.

By : Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng



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