By NDAHAYO Emmanuel
Amid unprecedented period of COVID-19 spread, Rwanda took no gamble to respond to the deadly virus. The country effectively triggered unthinkable lockdown measures on March, 21, after registering only 17 cases within a week since the first case was reported.
The country was the first to impose such high restrictive measures in sub-Sahara Africa as the continent and the world in general were still reviewing numerous possibilities which are less harsh to the lockdown of the entire economy. Ultimately, the virus proved too serious to play with, and now half of world’s population is restricted under some form of lockdown.
It was inevitable for Rwanda’s economy to survive such measures unhurt, but the country’s economists seemed to be aware of their situation as Rwanda, once again, become the first Sub-Sahara country to receive its portion of IMF’s emergency loan worth $109.4 million.
Among others, the loan would be used specifically to fill budget deficit that was created by emergency fund which were diverted to the responsive measures; including providing food to the vulnerable, increasing testing capacity and robust media usage to spread covid-19 information as far as possible. The country is also treating its covid-19 patients free of charge.
The response measures were so effective and helped to contain the virus in the country. Today, Rwanda is among few Sub-Sahara countries that have the pandemic under control. The country is yet to register any fatalities among its 154 total patients of whom 87 have recovered.
The recent aggressive initiatives have placed Rwanda into a good position to start thinking about lifting lockdown measures which had been extended three times since March, 21. Besides, Rwanda, like any other country, needs to resume its economic activities to limit unbearable collapse of the good work that had been built for the past 20 years. It is not expected that all restrictive measures will be lifted at once, it will definitely be gradual, partial lifting but whatever way, opening the economy is very essential.
Let’s examine how recent initiatives by Rwandan government suggest such partial opening.
Wearing face masks becomes mandatory.
Rwanda’s recent move to make masks wearing mandatory to anyone in public is a tangible sign that the longest lockdown servicing country in Sub-Sahara Africa might be really considering to lift some restrictive measures.
The Ministry of Health has ordered wearing face masks mandatory to everyone in public. Simultaneously, 22 factories were approved to mobilize their resources to manufacture enough face masks and other protective gear to the general public. 500 artisans and 300 modern machines are onboard working day and night to make sure face masks as available as soon as possible. 60,000 face masks are being manufactured daily; they will be 3 million within the next two weeks. Amid current disruption of international trade, which can hinder the importation of important raw materials, Rwandan factories have stocked up enough resources for the next six months, which is assuring that the project will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. There will be different kinds of masks and the costs will be as low as RWF500.
The government has initially reversed its early stance, which was based on WHO recommendation, that facial masks are less effective and should only be designated to health workers who are on the frontline combating the disease. The concern was that masks would be scarce to find should the public panic and stock up excessive reserves at the expense of health workers. Moreover, even today there is no global recommendation to use masks issued by WHO and basically, it is a fact that social distancing and frequent hygiene practice are the best preventive measures against Covid-19.
But in his recent interview with Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA), Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana, Director General of Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) assured that as there will be mass production of facial masks, the risk for health workers missing out have drastically been reduced. He went on to explain how masks can be used to protect the public from catching the highly contagious disease.
Rwanda’s cautious recommendation of wearing face masks is a reflection of global confusion on the capabilities of face masks to protect against catching Covid-19. World Health Organization has repeatedly downplayed the impact of mask to protect against covid-19 and therefore has never recommended such move. Experts have argued that WHO was not so adamant to recommend face masks to avoid possible global shortage of these important equipment especially to the poor countries.
However, some countries have taken their own measures to use masks and it seemed to have been effective. The Germany city of Jena is the best example. The city imposed wearing masks on March,21 when it had only 156 covid-19 cases. Since then, the city has never registered a new case and the whole Germany has vowed to do the same starting next week as it restarts its economy from lockdown. It is becoming evidence that all countries to lift some lockdown measures are simultaneously recommending mask usage in public places. Austria, Slovakia and Czech Republic have all done the same additional to Eastern Asian countries like Singapore, South Korea, china, japan and more.
Now that Rwanda is taking the same path suggests it might be preparing some sort of lockdown lifts, after more than a month.
Other African countries like Burkina Faso, have also imposed orders to wear masks in public.
Rwanda has been doing so well in terms of mass testing, tracking, isolating and quarantining the suspects of covid-19. In fact, testing at the airport started as early as February though the testing equipment of the time weren’t capable to detect all Coronavirus cases.
After the lockdown, Rwanda has conducted more than 7000 tests, starting with the most vulnerable. The country has been given another mobile testing car with the capacity to detect viruses like Ebola and Coronavirus. Moreover, Rwanda has launched online testing using mobile phones. There is also a hotline to ask any question regarding the virus and also to request being tested if you feel unwell. It is a milestone achievement in the fight against covid-19 because it generates real picture of the conditions of Covid-19 in the country.
Today, Rwanda is able to test 2000 suspects per day. It has six quarantine centers across the country including near borders with neighboring countries.
Building impressive testing capabilities is one of the six recommendations by WHO to countries which are stepping up to lift lockdown.
Additional activities approved to continue.
Additional to essential activities in health and agricultural sectors, Ministry of Infrastructure has approved the continuation of 21 construction activities in construction sector. They are schools, hospitals, roads, water rehabilitation centers, companies to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) and insurance companies.
Some have argued that the relaxation of restrictions on these activities is lined with government’s efforts to avoid paying huge amounts of additional money to the contracted companies that are carrying out the construction projects while they had ceased their activities too. Whatever way, this is another indication of preparations that are under the pipeline to open the country’s economy.
In the meantime, the national air carrier, RwandAir, will restart its limited journeys for passengers from Brussels to Kigali every Friday of the week. The journeys target more than 500 Rwandans stacked in countries like USA and Canada. RwandAir is already conducting cargo flights to China, Belgium and England.
If you consider six recommendations by World Health Organization on what countries should consider while reopening their economies, Rwanda will visually rank well.
1, The first recommendation would be to control disease transmission.
2, WHO also recommends health system to be able to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact.
3, Hot spot risks should also be minimized in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes.
4, Country’s schools, workplaces and other essentials must have established preventive measures.
5, The risk of importing new cases also should be managed.
6, And the last, communities should be educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal.
Considering what Rwanda has done so far, it is fair to say that if it lifts its lockdown, it will be well positioned to monitor and keep the situation under control. The country is also facilitated by already established governing system, which helps to accumulate as much information as possible and so countering any potential threat would be easy.
Some African countries have also started lifting their lockdowns. Ghana has partially lifted its lockdown while South Africa is expected to follow come May, 1.
Meanwhile, African countries will have to be very vigilant while lifting their lockdowns as WHO has predicted the continent to become the next epicenter of the pandemic. Coronavirus cases on the continent have jumped by 43%, from 16,000 to 26,000 with more than 1200 fatalities in the last week. It is predicted that as many as 10 million people will get infected in the next six months if the continent doesn’t react accordingly. The continent is also predicted to need a whopping $100 billion in the damage of its economies.