Like any extreme event, the Coronavirus outbreak tells us much about individual countries, by exposing weaknesses and highlighting strengths. Rwanda’s response has reflected both the nature of the society and the country’s governance.
Rwanda’s government of national unity is led by the biggest and strongest of the governing parties, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). Central to the RPF’s philosophy of governance is a government that is guided by the best available scientific understanding, a government that is “people centred”, channelling that scientific understanding through Rwandan culture, the better to forge a partnership for development, between people and government.
Given that outlook, it was always predictable that the response to the Coronavirus outbreak would be based on advice the World Health Organisation (WHO) pools from the world’s researchers and scientists.
And with the inevitable exception of a few individuals, the emphasis on consensus, and partnership between people and government, was always going to mean that recommendations from the Ministry of Health would be largely followed.
An oft-heard refrain about the Rwanda government is that “it works.” This is as much a sad reflection on the general state of affairs on the African continent, as it is about the efficiency of the Rwandan government. That efficiency is clear for all to see in the response to the virus.
The government was quick to put in place measures against the spread of the virus. As early as January, arrivals at Kanombe international airport were tested for symptoms of the virus. Those who were found to be infected were escorted to an especially quarantined section of Kanombe military hospital. Despite having been set up to serve the military, the hospital serves the entire nation, and is one of the country’s biggest.
The testing measures became more stringent as the scientific advice changed, and WHO prepared to declare the epidemic, a pandemic. Almost one week ago, after Rwanda had registered 17 cases on March 21, all flights in and out of the country were cancelled, and lock down measures put in place nationally.
The number of Covid-19 patients being treated in Rwanda, now stand at 41. The country has not had any deaths from the virus, and is straining every sinew to keep things that way.
Under lock down, people are allowed to go out for essentials like medical treatment or shopping for food. Police are enforcing the measures, and a mere 5 days in, many of the officers already have world-weary expressions permanently etched on their faces. Most people understand, and are respecting the measures, but astonishingly, some people will lie, just to wander about.
One feels for the police. So many times have they had to say it, it would be interesting to count how many are repeating in their sleep, the words, “ba uhagaze aho, urajyahe?” stop there for a moment, where are you going? Anyone spinning them a yarn is told to go back home.
“It is always obvious when you are telling the truth” chuckled a baker, motioning at a group of youths who were being shepherded back home, after somewhat unconvincingly mumbling something about medicines for one of the group’s mother. “Is very particularly heavy medicine” quipped a bored policeman. “One of you can pass, the rest of you go back home” he said, taking no chances.
The baker joins a few key people allowed to continue working, who apart from the obvious medical people, food markets, include journalists.
By and large, the lock down is being well observed, most people are almost self policing, and are clear that the measures are for their benefit, for national protection. Cities and towns, including Kigali are almost empty. Areas normally synonymous with traffic jams are either clear of any vehicles, or support a few, in their ones and twos.
The main bus depots, normally thronged with people, are lonely, ghostly places. In the last two decades or so, Rwanda has embarked on a massive road construction exercise, to build arteries that link the nation.
Except a few vehicles here and there, it is now possible to see all these roads displayed, without traffic.
The lockdown measures were initially for two weeks, and may be extended, as scientific advice dictates. As of yesterday, Rwanda had x more new case, 41 altogether, all under treatment, and according to the ministry of health, doing well.
The air in towns and cities has never been cleaner, but like much of the rest of the world, Rwanda is hoping it will soon be back fighting pollution, and traffic jams.
Pictures by Plaisir Muzogeye and more here