August 29, 2021

‘We Are Fully Opening Soon’: Behind The Evolving Government Messaging on COVID-19

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High profile detainee Paul Rusesabagina, the figure behind the “Hotel Rwanda” movie gets his COVID-19 jab inside the high security prison in Kigali, as part of the government’s mass vaccination campaign

With an economy battered, a tired population treated to regular images of people in neighbouring countries going about normal, government appears to be preparing the Rwandan population for full reopening.

The ongoing restrictions are simply too costly at different levels.

The way the messaging is evolving since the beginning of this month, August, suggests that government is preparing the minds of its people. It points to a possible decision taken at the highest levels that the country cannot afford to go on, in and out of lockdowns endlessly.

Since Monday August 23, government has been calling on Kigalians over 18 years of age to go to designated locations near their homes for the COVID jab. While announcing this new mass vaccination drive, the health and local government ministries, which are both leading the operation, said that by September 3, at least 90% of the adult Kigali population will have been vaccinated.

Speaking this Friday at Gahanga health center in Kicukiro, Kigali, state minister in charge of primary healthcare, Dr. Mpunga Tharcisse, expressed government satisfaction with the vaccination operation so far, and even highlighted another target plan.

Dr Mpunga said the target is to vaccinate at least 80% of adults in Kigali and its satellite cities.

Kigali’s satellite cities include Nyamata in Bugesera district about 20km away, which has lately become a residential location for many of those working in Kigali. The other is Rwamagana district, 50km to the east. Another is Muhanga district, also about 50km to the south.

The three fast-growing cities are often referred to in government circles as “Kigali’s Golden triangle”.

Kigali is estimated to have nearly 2m residents. Bugesera could be about to hit 400,000 people, as Rwamagana is estimated at 320,000 residents, and Muhanga also around 350,000 residents.

For each of these cities, about 40% of the population is over 19 years old.

That the government is preparing the population for opening of the economy, appears to be the only feasible option. Otherwise, the economy could fall into a ditch from which it may take very long to recover with unknown consequences in the medium term.

Business is slow even in Kigali, as regulations require fewer operators and customers in shopping centers and markets. A night curfew from 8pm till morning, remains in place – meaning the night economy is all gone, leaving tens of thousands unemployed.

Major hotels and eateries require a COVID-19 vaccination certificate and a negative test before you are allowed there. This means the hospitality industry, which has nearly been decimated, cannot attract even the few local clientele with purchasing power.

The unemployment situation could be so serious that the National Institute of Statistics (NIRS) had to stop releasing monthly figures of the labour market at the end of last year.

Cost of living has not stopped going up, especially in Kigali. The only positive aspect of the economy at this point is that government has mandated bus companies to keep transport fares in Kigali and across the country unchanged from 2018. Yet the buses are required to carry less passengers.  

Food prices have increased. Monthly house rent in Kigali has gone up by between 20-30%. For example, a 3-bedroom house with 2 bathrooms inside now goes for Rwf 250,000 depending on the neighborhood. The same house was Rwf 200,000 back in March and before. Rent prices are even higher for 1-roomed houses because many families need them since they are no longer able to afford bigger houses following the arrival of the pandemic.

At the general national level, the country’s debt has hit over Rwf 7.6 trillion ($7.6b) as of June, as The Chronicles has widely reported. The national currency the Franc has reached Rwf 1,002 against the US dollar – making imports more expensive, even if our exports are cheaper and lower than last year.

With such a grim situation which President Kagame and his team have to sleep and wake up to daily, yet prospects don’t seem to be improving, indications show the President has opted to let the population get back to fending for themselves like they did before the pandemic. The regulations may have to be significantly relaxed.

However, after keeping the population under strict measures since March last year, government cannot suddenly turn around to say ‘OK get back to your lives’. The population may never trust anything the government says going forward if not prepared.

It is why the messaging on the progress of the pandemic is changing.

Two weeks ago, the country marked 1m national vaccinations, or about 8% of the population. It is small, but a major milestone compared with many countries on the African continent. The elderly in Kigali and other regions have  been vaccinated.

An elderly woman gets her jab inside the high security Mageragere prison in Kigali

Daily infection rate is still being released late in the night. It is down to less or slightly above 500 cases, from over 1,000 last month. Though the infection number is still big, because the whole of last year daily cases were in tens, media attention on infections has dried away today. There is very low republication of figures on the airwaves and social media.

To keep projecting a positive picture, government leaning media and social platforms are beaming news of vaccine manufacturing. President Kagame just returned from Germany for the G20 summit, where final preparations were put in place for vaccine plants in Rwanda and Senegal to serve COVID-19 vaccines and other viruses for the continent.

A major continental basketball tournament is taking place at the magnificent Kigali Arena. Its images are all over Rwanda TV stations, the dominant radio sports programming and online media.

While arrests for flouting COVID-19 regulations have not stopped, whereby culprits are taken to stadiums to spend day or night, the Police is of recent targeting people of public status like local celebrities or holders of public office. The arrests are happening mainly in cities and Kigali’s elite neighborhoods.

The tactic seems aimed at sending a message to the large population that no one is above the law, in effect scaring everyone else into order.

In previous months, the Police message on the media was dominated by ‘If you don’t adhere to regulations we will arrest you’. In recent weeks however, there is a lot more awareness campaign messages on media and social platforms educating the public than scaring them. Health, local and security personnel are explaining more, than threatening.

As indication, several local officials have been arrest or suspended, or loudly condemned by senior central government officials for using excessive force when enforcing the COVID regulations.

Commenting on the ongoing mass vaccinations of over-18 year-olds in Kigali, City Mayor Pudence Rubingisa said if Kigalians turn up for the jab in big numbers, it could lead to a return to normal life in Kigali next month.

Even when the vaccinations wouldn’t be insignificant, local and international public opinion will have settled on the notion that Rwanda has contained the virus.

You are being prepared for a possible ‘lets open up’ announcement.

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