Just over six months since the fate of the world began to be largely determined by the New Coronavirus pandemic, Rwanda feels confident enough to begin to loosen some preventive measures, thanks to timely decision making at the start of the pandemic.
At a press conference with the key ministries, including the Minister of Health, Dr Daniel Ngamije, Minister of Local Government, Professor Anastase Shyaka, Minister of Education, Valentine Uwamariya, Minister of Trade and Industry, Soraya Hakuziyaremye, and the spokesperson for the Rwanda National Police, Commissioner of Police Jean Bosco Kabera, we were given a clear idea of what lies ahead, in the continued fight against Covid-19.
We also got a glimpse on the enormous preparatory work that has had to be done to make the partial relaxation of preventive measures possible.
The impression of the Rwanda government that comes to mind, is one of a Swan, serenely smooth sailing on the surface, hugely energetic paddling below.
We are also reminded that combating Covid-19 is a continuously unfolding process, not an event. As the science becomes clearer, health professionals increase their understanding of the virus, approaches change.
Only a month ago, Rwanda was experiencing the kind of spike in Covid-19 cases that is being experienced in almost every other country in the world, as preventive measures were relaxed to allow resumption of more normal activity.
As has been self-evident since the beginning of the virus, the government has punctiliously followed scientific advice, and more strict preventive measures were quickly reintroduced. Some parts of the country like Rusizi, neighbouring the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border, were put back into lockdown.
Kigali’s main markets of Nyarugenge and Nyabugogo were shut down. Testing and tracing, including random testing were ramped up. It worked.
“The numbers are encouraging” the health minister, at today’s press conference, “In random testing in and around Kigali, last week, only two people out of 2,000 tested positive. This indicates that Covid-19 is not spreading exponentially through the community.”
The recently re-opened markets however remain a concern. Preliminary results of testing carried out a couple of days ago, show that out of the 250 people, 162 tested negative, the remaining 88 are being retested to see how many are positive. This according to minister Ngamije suggests that not all in the market is as it should be.
“The nature of the market, the way people work, their adherence to preventive measures, all need to be kept under strict observation.”
Broadly however, the message is one of quiet satisfaction, but vigilance must be maintained, if reintroduction of tougher measures like lockdown are to be avoided.
Rwanda has lost twenty-nine dead to Covid-19, and some important lessons have been learned from the sad loss. Looking at the age of the dead, the pre-existing conditions which may have rendered them more vulnerable to the virus, it has now been decided that some people can be treated at home, rather than at treatment centres, as they have been until now.
People under the age of sixty-five who are found to be asymptomatic, or have minor symptoms, will be asked to self isolate and be treated at home. They will be monitored by their local authorities and health centres, and moved to a designated treatment centre or hospital, if their symptoms deteriorate.
They will be asked to quarantine themselves in their homes, and self isolate within them, having as little contact with other members of their households as possible. They will be asked to wear bracelets which will keep health authorities of their whereabouts.
This will enable the closure of over a hundred treatment centres, and to consolidate resources where they are most needed. And it will of course save on expenditure, as well as easing the pressure on medical professionals and health workers.
Visitors to the country will continue to be tested on arrival, and asked to be quarantined for at least twenty-four hours, as well as provide a certificate of having been tested on their departure.
All of this is necessary, because some visitors who have arrived in Rwanda with a certificate testifying to their negative status, have come out positive on being tested. Some have been suspected of forging negative status certificates.
Education institutions are to reopen, but with continued restrictions. “Although the decision to reopen educational institutions was made on 25th September, the work to prepare for this reopening began much earlier than that” the minister of education said.
This work included extending classrooms to allow for the stipulated distances between pupils, or students, providing hand washing facilities, and generally raising the standard of hygiene.
First to reopen this month will be Universities and secondary schools, although not all Universities and secondary schools will open. Permission to open was dependent on the extent to which an institution is able, or has been able to provide online lessons, and guarantee that students will have the necessary facilities to observe preventive measures.
As well as hand washing areas, the institutions to open have been able to demonstrate that they have the space to keep the stipulated two metres between one student and another.
So far, six Universities, among them University of Global Health Equity (UGHE), African Leadership University (ALU), African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), have been given clearance to open for students on campus, but also to continue online classes.
Five more Universities, including the University of Rwanda, Mountain Kenya University and Rwanda Polytechnic will be allowed to open but only for students in their last years, third, fourth and fifth years.
This will allow these students to graduate, clearing space for others who come after them. All these institutions will be required to accommodate students at university campuses.
For universities not specially given the green light to open, it does not mean that they will not reopen at some point. The minister assured them that their institutions will continue to be evaluated, and allowed to open, as soon they fulfil the criteria for reopening.
For secondary schools other those which follow a foreign curriculum, and study largely online, the plan is to reopen in November. Those that follow a foreign curriculum may open sooner, because much of their teaching was online anyway.
For all institutions, holidays and term times will now be determined not on the basis of the normal education calendar, but on the basis of what is required to protect that population and others, from Covid-19 infection.
As with Universities, priority for secondary schools will be given to pupils in their last years, so that as they graduate, they leave space for younger students. Schools will also be encouraged to prioritise the core subjects.
The incremental normalisation of people’s lives largely depends on people’s adherence to preventive measures.
According to Professor Shyaka, people’s improved awareness and behaviour, whether in wearing masks properly, washing hands and keeping the appropriate physical distancing, can be seen from week to week.
The minister also praised the improvement in the way local government works with the Police, which is making it easier to identify the minority who continue to flout the directives to protect them and others.
He expressed satisfaction with the majority, who he said have largely taken ownership of the implementing Covid-19 protective measures.
Professor Shyaka especially singled out market traders, who on their initiative have set up committees to supervise the maintenance of the preventive measures. Initiatives such as trading on alternate days, mean that the number of people in a market at any one day, can be reduced by 50%.
There was a special mention for the youth volunteers, many of whom can be found in markets, reminding them to wash their hands, keep the required distance, and other measures.
“Pleasing as things are broadly however, we still have a long way to go, before reaching where we should be” said the minister. “Whether it’s people who break curfew, or fail to wear their masks properly, we still have much more to do, to protect ourselves and each other from Covid-19.”
The no nonsense Commissioner Kabera, reminded road users that before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, in fact long before it was declared at all, there was a campaign for safe driving.
“Gerayo Amahoro” or get there safely, had been successful in lowering the death rate on the roads, until it was shelved to focus on Covid-19 measures. Now however, it is coming back.
“According to the World Health Organisation” said the Commissioner, “80% of road accidents are caused by ignoring traffic regulations…this can be drink driving, using mobile telephones while driving, or speeding.”
“These habits are responsible for the 679 accidents in the last six months, 283 of which have ended in fatalities. We cannot focus solely on protecting Rwandans from Covid-19, and letting them continue to be killed in road accidents. From today therefore, combating Covid-19 will be combined with the ‘Gerayo Amahoro’ campaign.”
There is perhaps no greater sign of increasing normalisation, than the announcement by the Minister for Trade and Industry, that subject to observing preventive measures, betting shops may open.
The last word has to be one that was mentioned by all the ministers, and emphasized by Commissioner Kabera, who put it in characteristically blunt terms.
“Each one of us has a responsibility to protect ourselves and each other. There should be no need for anyone to be sanctioned for failure to observe these measures. We should observe them not to avoid being sanctioned by the law, but to avoid contracting and spreading the virus.”