In the Western African nation of Senegal, the French engineering and contracting firm Ellipse Projects inaugurated three new hospitals cities this month, representing a crucial turning point for the country’s public health system, with a fourth expected to be ready by the end of the year. The turnkey buildings in Touba, Kaffrine, Kédougou, and Sédhiou will radically improve medical access in a country where, as recently as this past May, the scarcity of regional hospitals meant Senegalese citizens from all over the country were forced to travel to the capital city of Dakar in search of medical attention—a time-consuming and costly endeavour that many patients could ill-afford.
The unveiling of these new complexes, which will further boost Senegal’s largely successful medical response to the Covid-19 pandemic, coincides with other initiatives undertaken by the Senegalese government and international partners such as Ellipse Projects to expand and modernize the country’s health service, with the overall objective of improving access to the country’s public health system through both expanded physical infrastructure and digitalization.
Ellipse Projects and Senegal’s new regional hospitals
While expanding regional hospital capacity should help prevent repeats of last year’s severe hospital bed shortages, Ellipse Projects’ initiative to build the four complexes pre-dates the Covid-19 pandemic. Until now, there were no major hospitals outside of the capital of Dakar, even though more than half of Senegal’s population lives in rural areas and 32% of rural Senegalese had no access to medical care at all.
To address the dearth of regional hospitals, President Macky Sall launched a tender back in 2017 for the construction of four hospitals worth €150 million, won by Ellipse Projects. The construction sites themselves represented additional opportunities for the local communities, since Ellipse Projects employed Senegalese businesses to carry out the bulk of the construction work. Now, with over 1,000 people employed across the medical, security, hygiene, and administrative teams of the four hospitals, these institutions will continue to positively impact the local economies of their respective regions of Senegal.
The main benefit of these four new hospitals, however, will be the improvement of primary healthcare, which will be crucial to raising Senegal’s current life expectancy from an average of 67.80 years. Each of the hospitals offers a suite of critical medical services, and the four facilities bring together 750 new hospital beds in total. The Touba hospital, located in Senegal’s second largest city, is the most extensive—boasting 300 beds and additional wards specialised in dialysis, gerontology, major burns, neurology, oncology, urology, and reanimation. Prior to the grand opening, Ellipse Projects organised training for the medical staff to ensure correct handling of the equipment.
Nevertheless, while the fully equipped buildings are a major boon to Senegal’s stretched public health sector, the Senegalese government still has much work to do in building out the country’s health system.
Public health responses still lean on community action
Senegal has fared relatively well during the Covid-19 pandemic so far, recording approximately 45,000 coronavirus cases compared to South Africa’s 2.1 million. Some public health experts argue the country’s experience with the Ebola virus in 2014 prepared the population for the required distancing measures, while others suggest Senegal’s youthful population – the median age is 18.5 – was responsible for keeping deaths low. Whatever the reason, just over 1,180 people have died of Covid in Senegal, out of a population of over 17 million.
Nevertheless, the fierce spotlight on public health over the last two years has thrown the need for an effective nationwide health system into sharp relief. While Covid-related deaths have been few and far between, the Senegalese health system as a whole remains limited by a lack of infrastructure and resources. In fact, even before the hospitals were opened this year, Ellipse Projects donated 100 million CFA francs to be shared between the Ministry of Health and Social Action and the National Pharmaceutical Supply to bolster the country’s coronavirus response moving forwards.
Besides a lack of funds and equipment, a major stumbling block remains mistrust in the public health system. As Covid-19 began to proliferate, community efforts by local leaders and health workers were crucial in implementing social distancing measures to curb the virus. Even the director of Senegal’s Health Emergency Operation Centre, Abdoulaye Bousso, said that “when we talk to the population and tell [them] to face this Covid… It’s not the health system, it’s the community.”
Digital medicine makes up for a lack of doctors
In order to bridge that disconnect between the health service and the broader population, Senegal’s government has pushed for innovative new approaches to healthcare, including by launching a digital medical system called SunuCMU in June. The governmental platform hopes to achieve 75% coverage in the country within two years, offering more transparency and improving patient access to the medical practitioners and appointment slots closest to them. Given Senegal has only seven doctors per 100,000 citizens, the website will also have a pedagogical element, allowing citizens access to basic information about non-emergency health care such as contraceptives. The app will ensure interoperability between health centres, removing the problem of non-uniform data entry and hardcopy paperwork by safely storing patient health data in one place.
Between new medical facilities and digital healthcare solutions, this past year has represented a banner year for medical advances in Senegal in spite of the pandemic. The Senegalese government must continue to prioritise this sector, ensuring equitable access to healthcare that transcends geographic, economic, and social barriers.