I wonder if we were the first team to win a hackathon with such a low tech solution. Ten days ago I didn’t even know what a hackathon was. Even now, I’m not entirely sure. But when a friend told me about a 48-hour MIT-sponsored team collaboration to help tackle issues of COVID-19 in Africa, it sounded like a win-win situation. The wisest thing I did was ask Nkhoma’s young communication intern, David to sign up with me. I might have predicted trouble with apps and audio and visuals, and when they came along, David and helped me through with a smile on his face. We spent 36 hours in front of our computer screens, breaking only for sleeping and eating the food Greg put in front of us. We teamed up with four others specialized in medicine, science, epidemiology, and surprisingly, a high school student with an impressive knowledge of global health who led the way with all of the technical and program details. The time difference meant that we went to sleep when it was early evening for everyone else, but by the time they woke up each morning, we had impressive progress on the items from the night before.
Almost every other group focused on technological solutions to help manage the incoming wave of viral infections on the continent. Compared to that, our non-woven polypropylene bags and community-based initiatives seemed a bit primitive. But I was pretty sure that technology wasn’t the solution in a place like Malawi anyways. Originally I went into the weekend hoping I could learn from someone how to develop a pulse oximeter or a ventilator using locally available resources. But none of those solutions could be mobilized rapidly on the community level. Since we needed something that would promote community buy-in and last throughout the pandemic, we settled on easy-to-access and region-modifiable information designed to help community health workers step up as the first line of COVID-19 triage decision makers in their community. We added stickers to spread information in communities and instructions for making masks and hand-free sanitation stations. Altogether, it was a bag printed with community teaching with information inside. The judges called it low-tech, but really it could be considered no-tech. After I gave my 3-minute presentation on behalf of the team, I wondered if we should have included a flash drive in the bag so there was some amount of digital data in our solution. But we were selected winners in our category nonetheless.
The most exciting part of it is that we can already start printing the information and adding it to the Health Surveillance Assistant education that Nkhoma’s community partners have sponsored this week. Our one-page resource may be just the thing to augment the 50-page instructional handbook that Malawi’s Ministry of health just produced for community workers. It will take longer to actually fund and print the bags, but we’re excited to have something tangible to start with even now.