Like many governments across the world, the Government of Rwanda is still struggling to manage the spread of COVID-19 and limit the scale, scope and depth of its consequences on the nation’s wellbeing.
So far, the pandemic has been, socially and economically devastating. It has not only changed how citizens socialize, live and work, greet, date and marry; get sick and get care; die, mourn and bury their dead but has also disrupted the lives of our school-going children with no clear end in sight in the near future.
When the first lockdown was declared on March 21, 2020, the economy was sent into “induced coma”─to borrow a term from economic Nobel-Prize Winner, Paul Krugman. It hasn’t recovered despite government’s best intentions.
According to the World Bank and IMF, in the first quarter following the lockdown, the economy fell by 12.4% and in the second quarter it went down 3.6%─accounting for a staggering combined GDP fall of 16% and wiping out more than two years’ worth of growth achieved prior to the pandemic.
Further, thousands of citizens especially in cities and towns can’t meet basic needs like food; poverty increased by 5.1% according to the World Bank─meaning 550,000 Rwanda joined poverty ranks, national debt grew by 18.1% from 58.1% in 2019 to 76.2%; the franc depreciated by 10.3% in the period between 2020 to mid-2021; unemployment grew from 13% in 2019 to 22% in early 2021 while production, demand, supply and tax revenues all went south.
And, of course, as we have written before, the country instituted one of the strictest enforcement measures of COVID observation rules with thousands arrested, imprisoned and fined with yet to be evaluated social and political consequences.
As you read this, we are into the second year since the arrival of the pandemic and the pain it brought but uncertainty about the future remains palpable.
Yet, while we know more today about this pandemic than we did a year ago, the strategy to manage and defeat it has remained unchanged. This should change.
Let’s explain why the strategy followed today is inadequate and why a new one tailored on what we have learnt from this pandemic is needed.
First, the strategy the government has followed since the virus was first officially announced and SOPs made public and implemented is based on Cabinet Decisions taken and reviewed every after two-weeks.
These Cabinet-originating mandatory measures have, for the last sixteen months included: wearing masks for everyone in public, washing hands, social distancing, lockdowns and stay-at-home, partial lockdowns and stay-in-districts all enforced by the national police with stern consequences for noncompliance.
The recent Cabinet measures announced on June 29 that took effect on July 1st are up for review this week. The measures include restricting movement between districts, barring people from eating in restaurants, requiring all government officials to work at home, closing down churches and disallowing public meetings and weddings, et cetera.
When it was announced that Cabinet was in session reviewing measures to contain the second wave, many citizens took to social media speculating that “stay-at-home” was a high possibility while others were decrying that possibility due to its impact on their lives and livelihoods.
The two-weeks measures have been accompanied by consistent messaging from RBC health officials and ministers reminding citizens, repeatedly, that stay-at-home and complete lockdown is possible─with the hope that since people detest it, they will follow SOPs bringing down infection, hospitalization and death rates. This hasn’t happened; instead, the unintended consequence has been to create continued uncertainty within the economic system and anxiety in the population contributing to economic and social depression.
And despite implementing one of the harshest enforcement measures anywhere, the pandemic is still matching on and the death toll rising.
As of July 10, 2021, a total of 48,490 had been infected discovered from over one million tested up from 25,773 on May 13th and death has risen to 551 up from 340 in the same period─with June identified as the deadliest month so far.
That has been the sad story for last sixteen months with the net effect being creating uncertainty, economic and mental depression that accounts for our now ailing and heavily indebted economy.
Analytically, while the two-weeks based strategy is tailored on advice from medical experts on the basis of data about the prevalence of the virus, it’s also based on hope that it can be defeated in the short-term.
However, from what we now know about this mutating virus, there is evidence showing that the pandemic is likely to stay with us longer and, therefore, government should adopt a longer, at-least three-months to one year strategy to liberate our country from this virus.
Where is the evidence that the pandemic might be with us longer than previously thought?
The clearest evidence is derived from three lessons discerned from scientific data, professional advice and strategies given and used in different countries compared to Rwanda’s approach’s pursued in the last sixteen months.
First, while most nations of the world were struggling to contain the spread of the pandemic in the first year of its arrival with western countries doing badly than developing nations, the Bloomberg COVID Resilience Ranking show that the best 20 nations recovering from the virus better were those doing poorly a year ago. These nations include the United States, which has more infection and death rates but now the first on the recovery list, New Zealand, Switzerland, Israel, France, Spain, Australia, China, UK, South Korea, et cetera.
Scientists confirm that these nations have been able to reverse infection rates and embark on economic recovery not only because of observing SOPs largely humanely, but due to two more factors: procuring needed vaccines and vaccinating their populations in big numbers and injecting money, through stimulus economic packages into their economies.
Secondly, even in these countries─for example UK which has the highest vaccination rate with over 66% of its adult population fully vaccinated and over 87% given one jab, scientists are still advising that the pandemic is not yet defeated nor is there guarantee it will be defeated this or next year.
With this insight, scientists are also advising that “there is no right time” to open up social and economic life! Even “herd immunity” isn’t a guarantee. On this basis, some of these nations have opened up while others have adopted a step-by-step opening up despite the prevalence of the virus. In other words, these nations are adopting, without explicitly saying it, a policy of “learning to live with the virus” instead of ruining economic and social life when there is no “right time” to open up.
So, how can Rwanda that has no vaccine of its own nor money to purchase it and which largely depend on donated vaccines from COVAX and other donors─competing with many other poor nations that depend on them, promise that, by December, it will have vaccinated 60% of its population and that at that time, we will have gained “herd immunity” to open up and return to normalcy?
Even Singapore that purchase vaccines using her own funds had, as of July, vaccinated only 37% and expects to reach 75% in October and, still, doesn’t bank on “herd immunity” because it realizes that the virus will still be undefeated and is therefore opening up-step-by-step and put in place measures to “live with it”.
Thirdly, evidence shows that recovering rich nations are now promoting “Green Pass” or “COVID-Passport” that’s used to allow travels. This tells us that the post-COVID World will be divided into two worlds: the first, nations whose citizens have been vaccinated and have such passports─largely coming from rich nations and, the second, those without such certificates─mainly from poor nations that are now dependent on “free” vaccines from COVAX initiative.
With this insight, to inject certainty in the socio-economic system, it would be better for the Government of Rwanda to adopt a three-months-to-one year strategy based on five factors: First, wiring the strategy around two-related objectives with one endgame: saving lives; ensuring economic recovery and, eventually, normalization.
Secondly, base the strategy on available resources and measured national capacity to acquire vaccines to vaccinate the population rather than relying on hope. Only relying on “begging” vaccines, where beggars are many isn’t reliable.
Thirdly, ramp-up access to “COVID Passports” or certificates for its vaccinated citizens to ensure that its population can partake to the restricted international travels likely to emerge in the post-COVID world.
Fourth, make access to the COVID-Recovery Fund more transparent and accessible to small business and the informal sector that has been hit-hardest.
Finally, change messaging away from informing the public that lockdown (Guma mu Rugo) is a possibility to educating the population to be personally more responsible, continue to enforce SOPs for three months and recruit church leaders, media personalities, respected politicians and musicians to continue educating the public about their patriotic duty to observe SOPs.
Then, with continued RBC tracking, testing, vaccinating, modeling COVID trends and advisory roles, put in place a step-by-step roadmap of opening up social and economic life based on three-months to one year for purposes of injecting certainty in the system, enabling societal and individual planning while the two-weeks only provide data for virus tracking purposes.
In this new strategy, the key message would be to tell citizens that observing SOPs like wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing will be here longer; for three-to one year as a sacrifice to contain and eventually defeat COVID without shutting down economic life again. Since masks don’t kill but hunger does, citizens will understand.