Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

Reflecting on Rwanda’s Early Response to Covid-19

As Covid-19 continues to impact the world, it becomes possible to examine how different political and social structures responded to this horrific virus. The different responses to the virus provides unique insights into the effectiveness of different governments, healthcare facilities and individual actions.

Within Rwanda, the governing authorities have taken the lead in preventing the spread of Covid-19 despite nearly 5000 being infected with the virus. Thankfully, only 34 have died with the majority already recovered. I have begun to reflect on my early experiences with Covid-19 when I resided in London and then Rwanda earlier this year. Thankfully, wearing my mask and being cautious has so far prevented me from catching this awful sickness.

During my last trip to Rwanda, I arrived on March 5 and was surprised by the actions taken by the Rwandan government in preventing the introduction, at that time, of Covid-19. Unlike my departure from London Heathrow, each step in my Rwandan arrival process required my temperature to be taken and for me to say that I held none of the most commonly well-known symptoms of Covid-19. Prior to reaching the Immigration arrival desks, my temperature was taken by a broad room scan and then individually taken by a medical doctor. During this process, every so often, travelers would be required to go into a side room to receive proper testing. At this point in time, Rwanda had no confirmed cases. I cannot say with any certainty if racial profiling was used as all ethnic and national backgrounds were subject to additional examination. It is understandable for the government to screen incoming travelers, but this was just the start of my experiences.

Within much of Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, there were public signs warning people about Covid-19 similar to the previous year’s Ebola scare in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The primary domestic television news station, RwandaTV, held multiple informational programs and alerts about the virus. They also showed speeches and images of President Paul Kagame washing his hands, practicing social distancing and avoiding shaking of hands. All these measures were the government’s attempt to help educate the population. On 5 May, the Office of the Prime Minister issued a statement that senior members of the government would sacrifice their April salary in order to show solidarity with Rwandans who are impacted by Covid-19. Fundamentally, the Rwandan government used its authority within civil society to promote its agenda to combat Covid-19.

A washing station at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. (Courtesy)

Within public spaces, many buildings and important sights, such as the Kigali Genocide Memorial, required visitors to wash hands with hand sanitizer or washing stations. Entering sporting events required temperature scans, which were performed by police. During one football match, police walked around the stadium and randomly escorted people, who they suspected of being ill, to washing stations and for their body temperature to be checked. Portable washing stations became a central component in the fight against Covid-19. Additionally, it became an unofficial sign of national pride within Kigali. At the end of February and into early March, low tech washing stations that require quick assembly and minimum maintenance, only filling up the clean water storage and releasing the used water, became a frequent sight. RwandaTV and other media such as the primary English newspaper, The New Times Rwanda, described the washing of hand at these stations as a civic duty for all Rwandans to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

How the Rwandan government engaged with society to combat Covid-19 is based on its strong influence within civil society. While many Global North researchers criticize the governing style of Rwanda, its benefits are clearly visible during times of crisis. The inconsistency of leadership effectiveness within Europe, United States and other Global North nations is absent within Rwanda. The government, through President Paul Kagame, has provided the necessary leadership that has kept Rwanda relatively calm compared to other nations during this pandemic. While critics cite journalistic freedom concern in Rwanda, one journalist commented to me how the government was providing clear information to him which greatly differed from the US President’s Daily Press Briefings.

However, there were still problems in Rwanda’s handling of Covid-19. Some problems were inevitable such as the economic downturn that arise after mandatory quarantine periods. Unique to Rwanda is how the government and civil society commemorated the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Genocide commemorations, called Kwibuka, focus on active community engagement to promote remembrance, education and unity. This was impossible as gatherings were restricted.  However, the Rwandan government cannot postpone or cancel the commemoration as it is an intrinsic part, whether organically developed or as some in the Global North believe it is purposely implemented by the government for political gain, of post-genocide national identity. Nevertheless, there was a limited commemoration to honor those who had died twenty-six years ago.

Despite the questions and concerns, the Rwandan government has been an active actor in preventing the spread of Covid-19 and provided the necessary leadership during a time of crisis that is still absent in the Global North. While Global North researchers and human rights organizations criticize the authoritarian nature of the Rwandan government, it is those same structures that are now benefiting Rwanda in the fight against Covid-19.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.
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