Satellite internet connects Mpumalanga rural vaccination centres.

A socio-economic development partnership between satellite communications operator Eutelsat Communications and Aspen Pharmacare aims to accelerate the Mpumalanga Department of Health’s (DOH’s) COVID-19 vaccination drive in the province’s predominantly-rural municipalities.

Last week, Eutelsat started to deploy high-speed broadband internet connectivity at 13 vaccination centres in the under-served communities. Eutelsat’s Konnect satellite broadband connects DOH’s electronic vaccination data system (EVDS) which pre-registers, admits and discharges vaccination clients at the vaccination centres.

According to the company, the coverage helps extend the EVDS-enabled vaccine rollout to rural-resident senior citizens and people living with co-morbidities, who are current target recipients of the government vaccines. It allows people without internet access to register at the centres, eliminating arduous and costly trips to and from the urban-based vaccination centres – often up to 50km away.

Michel Azibert, deputy CEO of Eutelsat, met with Dudu Mdluli, DOH’s acting head of department, to formally commence with the satellite broadband network. Azibert’s delegation also visited the Rob Ferreira Hospital in Mbombela, where COVID-19 vaccinations were in progress.

“We are optimistic about the long-term potential of SA and, for that matter, Africa. The success of SA against the pandemic is our own success. We are honoured to play a modest role by leveraging our company’s global satellite resources and reach to enhance the rural penetration of the vaccination programme,” said Azibert.

Local clinical professionals have welcomed the satellite-connected EVDS system in the rural municipalities as a potential accelerator of the nascent vaccine drive. Approximately 70% of the Mpumalanga province’s 4.4 million people live in under-privileged and under-served communities. Only 1.7% of rural households in Mpumalanga have access to the internet, according to Statistics South Africa’s General Household Survey 2020.

Konnect is Eutelsat’s satellite broadband initiative, operating in Africa, Europe and Russia. Claimed to be one of the largest and most powerful satellites over Africa, the initiative is rolling out 4G-equivalent public and enterprise services, with 50% of the satellite’s capacity dedicated to 40 African countries.

Headquartered in Durban, Aspen is a global specialty and branded multinational pharmaceutical company in both emerging and developed markets. Just over three million people have been vaccinated, to date. Government hopes to inoculate 46.2 million South Africans in order to reach herd immunity.

Last week, government announced that registration for those aged between 35 and 49 years will open from 15 July. The DOH has made it possible for qualifying persons to register for vaccination through its electronic vaccination data system portal, popular messaging service WhatsApp, USSD and a toll-free hotline.

“This initiative presents another arrow in the quiver of government to fight the COVID pandemic and to assist in saving lives. The initiative is highly consistent with Aspen’s ongoing commitment to supporting local efforts that mitigate the impact of the pandemic and assist in ensuring safe and sustainable communities” said Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen senior executive: strategic trade.

“Through this partnership with DOH and Eutelsat, we are bringing a novel solution to health challenges using cutting-edge technology. Connecting rural vaccination centres will reduce the burden, freeing up much-needed public resources into other critical functions,” said Nicolaou.

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