Cheikh Ameth Tidiane Diop

Rwanda’s COVID-19 story involves success and solidarity but at the price of democracy in the hands of an authoritarian government. As of 1 June, Rwanda had 377 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one related death, which is among the lowest rates in East Africa. President Paul Kagame’s government has extraordinary control over the population which can be credited for the country’s success. Schools and places of worship were closed a day after the first case was recorded on 14 March and borders were closed to foreign nationals on 22 March at the same time as a nationwide lockdown was implemented. The country’s overall response has set a positive example for its neighbours, despite its fiscal limitations of being a low-income country.

Rwanda’s strong government enabled it to respond rapidly to the pandemic. The national police have been in charge of enforcing the lockdown. While this has been effective, reports suggesting abuse of power have emerged. Police detained people suspected of disregarding lockdown rules and held them in a stadium with no legal process. While Rwandan authorities have used their powers to limit social gatherings and thereby reduce chances of community spread, there is a tradeoff between sociopolitical freedom and efficient governance. Sacrificing democracy has proven to be an effective option for Rwanda as it continues the fight against COVID-19.

In addition to strong governance, the country has been aided by its experience combating the Ebola virus. Rwanda developed a National Preparedness Plan for the Ebola virus. It consisted of training health workers, equipping health facilities, and identifying and treating high-risk areas. Ebola initiated the start of contact tracing networks, isolation centers for positive cases, and hand-washing stations, which were promptly installed again in Kigali on 11 March, before the first case of COVID-19 emerged in the country.

Rwanda’s government had been using technological innovation to diminish structural inequalities between rural and urban areas before COVID-19. Doctors in rural areas have been using text messaging to request and receive necessary medical equipment delivered by drones. The Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority has been using smartphone data for contact tracing. This method allows authorities to accurately identify those who have come into contact with positive cases and quickly reach them by calling or sending messages. However, the method is dependent on smartphone access, and though it has been successful so far, there exists a gap in rural areas where smartphone penetration currently sits at 14.6 percent of the population.

Rwanda’s communication strategies have been clear and efficient but limited by data. Various media outlets provide daily updates on the number of cases, deaths, and tests conducted. The social media pages of the Ministry of Health and the Office of the Prime Minister have provided simple yet clear infographics containing these statistics in English, French, and Kinyarwanda. However, critics question the accuracy of these daily reports beyond Rwanda’s limited testing abilities—they argue that government tampering could be a possibility. (Rwanda’s authoritarian government has been criticized for its lack of transparency in political matters, such as when Paul Kagame won the 2017 election with 98.79 percent of votes.) Nevertheless, the government’s efficient information delivery has been beneficial during this pandemic, especially compared to the failure of countries such as Brazil and Italy in disseminating coherent information.

Despite its relative success in fighting COVID-19, Rwanda has underlying fiscal limitations that restrict its policy responses. The decision to lift the lockdown on 2 May resulted from economic pressures on the tourism and trade sectors, revealing why lower-income nations are unable to maintain prolonged lockdowns. About 90 percent of all enterprises operate in the informal economy, most of which cannot effectively coexist with social-distancing rules. Taxes have not been consistent sources of income for the government, which in the pandemic emphasizes Rwanda’s inability to provide cash subsidies to individuals and enterprises.

Almost all financial interventions in the Rwanda COVID-19 Emergency Response Project are being funded by the World Bank, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has given Rwanda a total of USD 220.4 million to fight the virus since March but only USD 11 million in debt relief. The pandemic has stunted Rwanda’s economic growth by 2 percent in 2020, and the government’s plan to stimulate the economy relies heavily on increased borrowing. Cyclical debt is common among lower-income countries. Debt relief for these nations can no longer be used as a symbolic gesture—debt must be fully forgiven to truly support development in the long run.

Although controversial, the Rwandan government’s authoritarian nature has allowed it to flatten the epidemic curve while many democratic nations have been unable to do so. Kagame’s regime has continued to be an example for many African countries that share Rwanda’s financial constraints. Whether the government can continue an upward trajectory in development post-COVID will be consequential to the nation’s future.

Part of the COVID Comparative Project. View the complete series.