We know that there are weak health systems in sub-Saharan Africa and other countries, but our current crisis shines a new light on what that really means for vulnerable communities. COVID-19 forces us to acknowledge the full reality of health care systems around the world.

Patients across the region, particularly in rural areas, often struggle to access health care facilities and professionals because of long distances and limited transportation options. This affects long-term health outcomes like maternal mortality, nutrition and the treatment of non-communicable diseases. Short-term health issues, such as infectious diseases like COVID-19, are also challenging to address on a large scale when populations are spread out.

So, community health workers go to patients on foot. Through this strategy, more people are able to receive care – but it can be a long and fairly limited process. For example, having to walk miles in order to provide care takes time and saps energy from those making the trip.

But our Charity Alliance partner World Bicycle Relief sees a better solution: bicycles.

World Bicycle Relief provides health care workers with their patented Buffalo Bike, enabling them to reach 88% more patients in a day and travel four times as far as they would by foot. They’ve already shared 120,000 bikes across seven countries to support health care programs.

Under normal circumstances, bikes are a huge help in improving access to health care. But what advantages do they give now, as the world faces a pandemic?

Mobility is key
While here at home we’re trying to reduce movement as a means of addressing COVID-19, World Bicycle Relief understands that mobility is critical to halting its spread in developing countries. A recent World Bicycle Relief webinar explained that “transportation is key to a strong health system. You need something easy to set up and mobile.” In their experience, bikes can support both prevention and treatment. This is especially helpful in the case of COVID-19.

Community health workers traveling by bike have helped engage communities before the coronavirus arrived at their doorstep. They teach proper hand-washing and sanitation habits, help implement social distancing practices, explain symptoms and share local and national government policies to communities that don’t otherwise have access to this information. With the help of bicycles, more families understand what the coronavirus is, the seriousness of the situation, and what measures they can take to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Spreading information and implementing policies aren’t the only ways they are able to help. When patients fall ill, they need reliable and quick access to hospitals and health centers to receive life-saving treatment – but for many communities this isn’t always available.

Enter: bike ambulances.

Community health workers can attach covered metal carts with wheels to transport patients in emergency circumstances. The same essential workers sharing information and helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 are able to swiftly transport sick patients to healthcare facilities when needed. Thanks to these unconventional ambulances, everyone can get access to the health care they deserve.

Man riding a bike through the forest. "I am responsible for 105 households and 522 people. We reach sick people quickly." - Ramadhan Bakari, Community Health Worker, riding since 2015. World Bicycle Relief.

Power in partnerships
Strong partnerships are always a critical element to the success of development work. Working together to identify and fill gaps allows governments, organizations and communities to better meet local needs and leverage different kinds of expertise. World Bicycle Relief has a long and successful history of partnering with organizations to improve access to education, develop small businesses and improve gender equality. Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, they were already working in seven countries to improve health outcomes for rural communities.

In the current crisis, their experience working with partner organizations is even more important. They’ve been able to share bicycles with existing partners like CARE, International Medical Corps, PATH, UNICEF and World Vision as a tool to address COVID-19. These are the same partners we’re proud to support in our Coronavirus Outbreak Fund, who are fighting on the pandemic’s front lines for the world’s most vulnerable.

The Buffalo Bike is helping the staff and volunteers of these organizations reach more people in a shorter amount of time. Critical prevention and care are possible because these health workers have the mobility they need through their partnerships.
A woman holding the handlebars of a bicycle. "I've been encouraged. Before in a week, I could go to four villages. I couldn't even get the work done because I was so tired. Now, I am able to go on.The bicycle has helped energize me for my work." - Elifa, Community Health Worker, riding since 2015. World Bicycle Relief.

A moment of opportunity
Because COVID-19 has been slow to reach many developing countries, World Bicycle Relief points out that right now we have a window of opportunity. It’s more important than ever that front line health workers have the resources and transportation they need to spread information and prevention methods to their communities. With all of the lessons that have come from the experiences of other countries, there’s a real chance to avoid the same mistakes in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Early awareness, aggressive prevention methods and consistent access to information can help save lives in places that have under-developed health systems. World Bicycle Relief is working tirelessly to ensure this happens.

Take action! Invest in bicycles
Investing in bicycles through World Bicycle Relief means investing in a powerful, strategic response to COVID-19. Use this opportunity to boost your CSR and promote teamwork at your virtual office by getting your coworkers involved in response efforts. Here are some ideas on how:

  • Buy a bike for a health care worker. $147 buys a front line health worker a bike, enabling them to reach more patients and provide critical care during this crisis. Turn this into an employee engagement opportunity and set up a workplace competition. How many bikes can each team or department provide?
  • Create your own partnerships. Take inspiration from World Bicycle Relief’s example and explore how your company can partner with them in their response efforts. Connect with Global Impact to learn more about how to build or bolster your company’s CSR response.
  • Join a virtual event. World Bicycle Relief has a number of virtual bicycling events coming up this summer and fall that you can join to support their work. Register, share your involvement and choose your own route. You can even start your own workplace team and host a virtual event for everyone in the office!

We are facing a pandemic that threatens the lives and well-being of over 1 billion people. Now is the time for innovation and partnership – and it’s important that we look to examples like World Bicycle Relief for their unique expertise. If we can apply the lessons they and other nonprofits have learned to COVID-19 response across sub-Saharan Africa, we can hopefully improve health outcomes in the long run. And after this pandemic takes its place in history book, World Bicycle Relief will still be there, working to ensure that the progress we’ve made on the causes we all care about continues so we will be better prepared in the face of the next global crisis.