March 24, 2021

To Beat COVID-19, You Need a Submissive Population Like Rwandans


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Scenes like these have become all too common. Hundreds spend hours in stadiums daily, then are fined, and let go

For over a year now, the country has been in and out of different forms of lockdowns in a government attempt to control spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Except for isolated cases of people arrested for flouting the regulations, the general observance has been overwhelming.

One such case of a people doing everything possible not to fall prey to the tough regulations, is the reported spike in motor accidents as people rushed home. According to Traffic Police data released early September last year, between March and August 2020, some 1,826 accidents were recorded – many of them deadly.

However, of this full total, 744 accidents or 40.7% happened between 6-7pm during the few weeks when the curfew hour was at 7pm.

As a remedy, different actions were implemented such as closure of all private sector businesses and government offices at least two hours before curfew. Currently, closures are an hour before curfew. The thinking here was that the ample time allowed people to get home, so they didn’t have to speed leading to deadly accidents.

But why would people prefer to drive at death speeds? What explains this level of fear for COVID-19 regulations? Government’s own data shows that during the first two months of national lockdown last year, more than 60% of the population lost their entire livelihoods. Despite the pain they are going through, people have still complied when put back in lockdown.

The Chronicles traces the effectiveness of Rwanda’s response to the pandemic, from centuries ago. Is it obedience, or actual belief in the regulations?

There has been extensive research by Rwandan and foreign scholars demonstrating how obedience and fear of authority in Rwanda goes back to the pre-colonial period.

Louise Mukamana, 30, a trader, says that obedience to government’s COVID-19 regulations is actually a good thing. She added that as a result of fines and hours spent in stadium when found with no mask, people wear the masks at all times and properly.

“Have you ever seen anyone in public without a mask? They have also made it a culture to wash hands. It is the complete opposite in other countries, which has led to many cases and deaths recorded there,” said Mukamana.

Another Kigali resident, who declined to be named said that following orders from authority when they are likely to bring “good results” is what needs to be done. He says for the case of Covid regulations, they are “fair orders” because the virus is under control.

“Good orders” or “bad orders”

Since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, and subsequent arrival of the current political regime, researchers, especially those outside, point out that fear and obedience among Rwandans for those in authority, is not new. Back then, it made it easy when orders were issued to go kill Tutsis.

For example, researcher Gérard Prunier, wrote in 1995 that different regimes that prevailed in Rwanda always favoured the culture of obedience.

He wrote: “…there had always been a strong tradition of unquestioning obedience to authority in the pre-colonial kingdom of Rwanda. This tradition was of course reinforced by both the German and the Belgian colonial administrations. And since independence, the country had lived under a well-organized, tightly-controlled state. When the highest authorities in that state told you to do something you did it, even if it included killing.”

In her PhD thesis “Exploring meanings of obedience in the post-genocide Rwanda” published in 2015, Dr. Charline Mulindahabi, reviewed the available research on the obedience nature of Rwandans. Mulindahabi is director general of the Rwanda Management Institute (RIM) since last year.

Mulindahabi’s research shows that obedience was seen among her respondents as following orders, and they know that obedience comes with good orders. However, the same respondents couldn’t say what it is when the orders are “bad”. Though, consciously, the respondents admitted that they will be aware of “bad order”, but still go ahead to do it because it’s an order from a leader.

“I would call it obedience if it were a good thing you were told to do and you do it,” said Dr Mulindahabi in interview with our reporter. “…Anything else would not be called obedience; it is about carrying out bad actions. For me, I [think] that obedience is complying with good instructions and respectfully fulfilling my duties and responsibilities…”

Mulindahabi said that what is happening during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t obedience, but “trust” in Government. She said the authorities have earned the confidence of the population due in part to the manner in which the government has promptly shared information.

“So, people whose conception of obedience value is high did not have difficulty observing different measures taken against the spread of Covid-19. I think you know examples of some countries where authorities had difficulty making their people cooperate in the fight against the pandemic,” she said.

In Musanze district on January 12, this group of mainly women, were found locked in a house supposedly praying. Such defiant gatherings are a daily occurrence in different parts, perhaps some indication that there are some who still don’t think the covid regulations are “fair orders”

In her research, Dr Mulindahabi argues that the current political regime in Rwanda has earned the trust over time. As a result of the terrible aftermath of the genocide, Mulindahabi says Rwandans have learnt to question authority though they are not as many as those who obeyed.

“Changes are there. [Following the genocide], most…Rwandans came to realize that obedience to authority could be bad especially if the given orders are not good. So, I think nowadays, obedience among Rwandans is much more dependent on the nature or the quality of the received order,” said Mulindahabi.

The academic also shares similar sentiments with other colleagues.

At least 90,000 arrested and fined

A 2009 study by the London School of Economics (LSE) with two other institutions, argues that the post-genocide leadership is aware of how dangerous governing by obedience could be, and are willing to improve the situation.

They wrote: “Through its education and development policies, the RPF government appears committed to breaking with traditional models of deference towards authority with attempts to elicit “voice” from below, aware of the dangers blind obedience to authority can lead to, given the legacy of the genocide. At the same time the government is [intent on] promoting a “non-adversarial” relation between society and the state.”

COVID figures today show a total number of cases over 20,800, with an almost equal number of recoveries (over 19,200), active cases at 1,390; while deaths have continued, – reaching 292. There is a notable big number of tests at over a million.

COVID-19 vaccinations are ongoing, with over 330,000 already had their first jab.

The daily infections still remain slightly below 100 cases – a high number for a small country like Rwanda. Five districts, all bordering Burundi to the South, have a positivity rate of up to 10% – high figure. Positivity rate is percentage of those found with the virus, in relation to total tests conducted at a particular period.

Ordinary people admit that though they are desperate to return to their life as it was back in 2019 and before, they agree that relaxing the control measures will cause obvious spike in infections.

At least 90,000 people have been detained and fine since the pandemic began. At the beginning of the pandemic, some people spent days in police cells. Government changed tactics; with those caught not observing regulations spending night in the nearby stadium, and also fined.

For example, once one is found not putting on a face mask, you will spend hours in the stadium and pay Rwf10, 000 ($9). Very often, journalists will be called in to take photos of the culprits.

Also, violating a COVID-19 ban on bar operations, the Ministry of Health guideline provide for a Rwf 150,000 fine for the bar owner and Rwf 25,000 paid by each of people found drinking in the bar.

When you organize a party, like many have done and are caught, usually after a neighbor called the authorities, the organizer pays a huge fine. All those arrested at the spot will be required to take COVID test at own cost, and also pay the fine.

The Rwanda National Police (RNP) has been in charge of dealing with COVID regulations flouters. Its Spokesman CP John Bosco Kabera is a daily presence on social media and conventional platforms, pleading and sometimes speaking forcefully about compliance. He told us he was away on travel.

“Complying because you are being watched or for fear of being arrested, will not save you from getting infected. Fear COVID-19 not the Police,” CP Kabera has repeatedly said.

For people out there, they will remain submissive to authority. There are common sayings like “Icy’ifuzo cy’umuyobozi n’Itegeko” (a leader’s wish is law), “Nta uvugira mu ijambo ry’umukuru” (no one speaks when a leader is talking).

For one Kigali resident, he said: “I fear the penalties more than even COVID-19 itself.”

EDITOR: This story has been slightly modified. Rwanda Police Spokesman is CP John Bosco Kabera, NOT Jean Bosco, as reported in previous version of the story. We regret the error.

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