Postcard From Rwanda

I write this at the beginning of the third week of Rwanda’s second lockdown, some eight months after the first ended. The lockdown only encompasses the capital, Kigali, as the epicentre of the rise in cases, and domestic and international tourism is still open for those wishing to see the rest of this beautiful country. We have to get police permission to leave the house even for food shopping, masks have been mandatory outdoors – and in cars – since the WHO changed their advice, and outdoor exercise is only allowed between 5am and 9am; even then we are only supposed to stay in our Umudugu, a small village within a village (ours is tiny).

The biggest cheerleaders for this latest lockdown were, predictably, the privileged expat community, those least likely to be severely affected by the closure of the Rwanda’s economic centre. Rich (especially so in a context where the average salary for Rwandans is around $50 per month), mainly European and North American people have been a constant source of panic, hysteria and judgement since the very first case of COVID-19 arrived in Rwanda in early March 2020. This is expressed in the groupthink posts on Expats in Rwanda Facebook group. In their comfortable compounds, with their gardens, their nannies, and ‘house boys’ and their home deliveries of food, they deride the locals for going out on the streets (the public space is where most of Rwandan life takes place), or for their wearing masks with noses out or like scarves around their necks. Emboldened by this moral superiority they rat out shopworkers to their bosses for non-compliance and swan around in their SUVs masks on, like true believers.

There is a little opposition to the received wisdom among some of the expats; those who severely doubt the efficacy or even necessity to lockdown a country where 50% of the population are under 19 and over 65s count for just 3% of the population1, but they are shouted down or stay quiet. As a business owner (albeit non-operational given the inability to meet with my clients face-to-face for most of the past 10 months) whose clients include these expats, I would damage my sales for questioning the orthodoxy. As such the clamour for closure of schools, mask compliance and fear prevails – in that regard Rwanda does not seem to be much different from the rest of the world.

As for the locals, in the beginning there were rumours that only white people caught the virus, or that it was a rich person’s disease, and even now, for the vast, vast majority there are more important things to worry about – such as obtaining food and not starving– than a disease which few Rwandans have been exposed to: even after 10 months of it circulating around the country, many of the cases have come from the expat community.

Rwandans follow the edicts as they always do; whether they feel the measures necessary is unclear. There has been a little more pushback this time, as the lockdown was announced one day before schools were scheduled to reopen and many Rwandans had already paid for uniform and other requirements, only for them to never open. What is clear is that the government imposes severe controls and spreads compliance through a constant stream of information pumped out on radios and television and newspapers, all of which tow the Government line. There is no opposition to much here, although you can tell that most people – especially the poorest – do not consider it an issue and are just doing what they are told. The main zealots then, are the Government and the rich.

There are understandable reasons why Rwanda shut down in late March however. Although the country has made great strides forward, its healthcare system is limited and fragile and there were only around 30 ICU beds in the entire country at the beginning of the pandemic. Concern about overloading the hospitals was thus entirely reasonable, especially as much was not yet known about how the virus would act in sub-Saharan Africa. Given their history, Rwandans are also cautious by nature, and any threat to the hard-won post-war/genocide stability is taken very seriously. So the Government has closely followed the WHOs changing positions – before masks were mandatory everywhere, they were strongly discouraged everywhere – and have largely copied the responses of the West, even though Rwanda, like most of the rest of Africa, with the possible exception of South Africa, seems to have largely been spared the worst of the disease.

The Government has done as good job at communicating to its people. Every day, there are statistics released on case numbers, tests done, deaths and unlike the UK for instance, it also published test positivity rate and recovery rates clearly. See the example from 01.02.21

Some people claim that these numbers underplay the extent of the virus and the numbers are actually higher – as if they wished it were worse – and while there could be some massaging of the statistics, Rwanda can usually be trusted to be more transparent than its neighbours.

It has been interesting to see the narratives pushed in the west that BAME people die more from the disease than white people. If Covid really was racist, no one seems to have told sub-Saharan Africa. Could it be that the warmer climes (Rwanda is not far from the equator and the temperature hovers around 25 degrees all year round) and sun exposure (with its attendant vitamin D) protect people and in fact it is the fact the black people in the UK and other northern countries lack this? As such it has astonished me that almost no-one recommended black people take vitamin D supplements to boost their immune systems in the UK until perhaps recently.

My lockdown scepticism has always begun with education. Here, even among some expats there is criticism of the Government’s approach to its young (40% of the population remember). Schools were shut one week before the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020. Primary schools were set to reopen on 18th January 2021, but the lockdown has put paid to that. Secondary schools reopened in October after a six-month break. Given the current measures it is likely the primary school children (as we know those least at risk of both contracting and spreading) will go a year without being in school at all. One school our family supports in the east of the country teaches vulnerable children; at the beginning of lockdown they were sent home from the safety of their boarding school and instead put back in the communities that they previously needed protection from. Sure, children are told to watch TV to get their lessons. However, access to electricity in Rwanda is about 60%2 and access to a television clearly likely to be much less. You can imagine how much learning has gone on at home. Rwanda’s questionable decision to teach in English to a population who don’t speak English (by teachers who don’t speak English) makes this situation worse, as the parents at home will not be able to help their children even if they did have television (or an education of their own).

Of course, private international schools (even primaries) reopened in October (with masking of children over the age of two) and have also provided their learners with remote learning since – in my son’s primary school’s case – May 2020. Thus, the expats (who obviously send their children to these expensive schools) and the children of the Rwandan elite have continued to receive an education while the poorest and most in need have not. Unbelievably to my mind, many expats on the Facebook forum are those who shout the loudest for the schools to close when they know it won’t be their children who will be most affected. Instead, the gap between the rich and the poor expands (to be clear I want all schools open), while many teenage girls who would otherwise be at school are raped and impregnated by members of their community stuck at home. Overall, the life chances of the most in need in society are irreparably harmed.

During the Black Lives Matter moment in spring / summer of last year there was much introspection among the Facebook expat group about their white fragility and whatnot (in truth, you cannot get much more elite than a white expat on a fat salary in one of the poorest countries in the world) and there was a witch hunt of a few people who dared to question the narratives. Perhaps they miss an irony here: Black lives matter when it’s the handful of African Americans killed by police in the United States, or those (thankfully few) aged Africans who have succumbed to Covid, but they don’t matter if they are the estimated 10 million children across Africa who will never go to school again, including all of the unwanted teenage pregnancies.3 The BMJ estimated recently that excess deaths from malaria are likely to have been 100,000 in Africa due to funding being moved from combating malaria to combatting Covid.4 And malaria, unlike Covid, kills mainly children.

Rwanda, then, has followed the textbook reactions to the pandemic, irrespective of its relatively low numbers (198 deaths above are from a population of about 12 and half million at time of writing). For this it is held up as an example among African countries on how to do it. While it has done many things right – border controls, negative tests before flying and then on entry, like many things here, some of it is for show. One of my son’s ex-teachers – a white European and her Rwandan husband both tested positive for the virus. The well-off husband was told to stay at home and quarantine until testing negative again. His wife was given the full treatment – police, an ankle bracelet to track her movements to make sure she didn’t leave her compound and utmost seriousness. Her live-in housekeeper contacted the authorities, suggesting that she should get tested since she had been around the two confirmed cases. The authorities never called her back.





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October 2022
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