While at a hotel in Accra for lunch, I saw three people on a table of four dressed in smart uniforms, looking quasi military. I had seen them or their colleagues all week and I wanted to find out whether they were guarding some notables.
I asked if I could join them and they agreed. As I sat down, I saw that they were paramedics specifically at the hotel to ensure that if any of us needed first aid or urgent medical care they would be at hand to provide it. They were the guys manning the ambulance that was outside the hotel reception.
I was intrigued and wanted to find out more. Were they a private company? Are they always at every hotel in the city? How do they work? They told me they were at the hotel at the request of the organizers of the meeting I was attending otherwise they have stations across Ghana. They told me that in Accra alone, they have 11 stations. Each station has at least three ambulances. That is at least 33 ambulances. They are public servants.
Once any Accra resident needs emergency medical care, they simply dial 112 on their cellphones and the call is routed to the nearby station. The paramedics then rush to the scene to provide that care and then drop somebody to the nearby hospital if need be. They work in shifts to ensure that there is a team always on standby to rescue anybody in need.
I was mesmerized. Bewildered. Thoughts running back to Kampala where I don’t know of any such service. Some Members of Parliament have bought some cargo vans, embossed them with the word ambulance and fixed some siren and lights on top from Kisekka Market. Usually such ‘ambulances’ have only a driver who you must give money for fuel to rescue you. There is also a private ambulance company I usually see but I think they work more with hospitals that may not want to run their own ambulance service.
The paramedics told me that sometimes they receive false calls from children playing on the phone but they only get to know when they reach there. I asked them whether they don’t get lost while trying to get to the scene given that many parts of Africa don’t have clearly marked streets. Accra is home to some informal settlements, just like all African cities. They said usually once they put on the siren and the lights and get to an area, the community already knows where a problem is and easily direct them.
In Kampala, when you hear a siren, it is mostly somebody who knows somebody big in government and recently bought a third hand 15-year-old SUV from Japan trying to announce their arrival, driving everyone off the road so he can have some drinks with his heavily bleached damsel.
Accra is a city of about 2.3 million people and has 33 ambulances rescuing whoever calls. Kampala with nearly 4 million people has no ambulance system that I know of. Accident victims are dropped at Mulago Hospital on either boda boda by good Samaritans or on the back of a police pick-up truck. We don’t have any trained team in emergency medical care that can ensure somebody lives to see another day. Many people end up announced dead on arrival at hospitals because there is no efficient way professional medical care can get to people as fast as possible.
Since Ugandan public servants like benchmarking trips, they should make one to Accra. A direct flight from Nairobi is approximately six hours and there is no need for a visa. Within a week, they would have learnt a lot. In just an hour over lunch with junior paramedics stationed at a hotel to provide a service to visiting delegates, I learned a lot about the ambulance system in Ghana. So a meeting with the high hierarchy that runs the service would do wonders. Uganda could even hire a consultant from Ghana to run this. We did this for URA in its early days, we can do the same for our lives.
Of course, I know that a benchmarking trip is not sufficient (it may even have taken place already). Government must be willing to do it.
Alternatively, government can support the private sector to do it by guaranteeing interest free loans on ambulances and training paramedics and paying them a salary while the private sector pays their allowances among others. That could actually decongest public hospitals so that only people who need to be in hospitals are admitted there.
The writer is a communication and visibility consultant. email@example.com
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