It took exactly one week from Rwanda’s first confirmed COVID-19 case to a total country shut down.
On Saturday March 21, Rwanda stopped the pandemic in its tracks.
Rwanda knows what it takes to fight a pandemic. We were not naïve, thinking that it couldn’t happen here. Less than a year ago, Ebola was at our doorstep in DRC and Uganda. With the diligent work of the government, Ebola did not cross the border.
So we were ready for COVID-19. Weeks before our first confirmed COVID-19 case, hand sanitizer showed up at building entrances throughout the city. Security guards would chase after you carrying a bottle to ensure you got a squirt before entering. Group meetings and conferences were canceled. Handshakes turned to elbow bumps.
The mandated measures gave everyone a sense that there was something out there. Something we had to protect ourselves against. Something that was inevitably coming—we just didn’t know when.
From February, health workers clad in personal protective equipment, wielding iPads and thermometers, screened each arriving airport passenger, logging personal information.
From March 9, all arriving passengers coming from countries with COVID-19 were placed in self-quarantine.
Rwanda conducted 900 COVID-19 tests before the first positive.
And then it was our time: on Saturday, 14 March, the first confirmed a case was received.
As of this writing, we have 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Rwanda. Six of those cases were caught within two days of the person arriving into the country. Five arrived before the March 9 self-quarantine order. Only two of the confirmed cases so far have been from people who have not travelled.
While we will no longer be importing the virus, we have by no means seen the end of COVID-19 in Rwanda. But the strong government actions mean that we heading toward domestic eradication.
The virus spreads to an average of 2-3 people per day, per infected person. The longest case in Rwanda between arrival and confirmation was 15 days. The government has mapped the interactions of those confirmed cases and identified over 680 people that have interacted with someone infected. The Ministry of Health has been able to identify 60 per cent of those 680 and conducted further tests.
We can bet that COVID-19 has gone far outside of this discrete group. By now, even with so few cases from the start, thousands could be infected. However, the measures that the government took ahead of our first case in Rwanda most likely slowed the transmission.
Closing the country was clearly the right decision, but no doubt a difficult one. The world is grappling with the dramatic economic effects of closing down, viruses the devastating death toll that looms with no action.
We do not have the luxury of a pandemic in Rwanda. According to The Chronicles, Rwanda only has 39 ICU beds. We can’t kid ourselves that we can “fight” an outbreak. But the thing with this outbreak is it cannot be fought—only contained. No country has the medical resources to fight an incurable disease that has unleashed upon a population.
The only action we have seen work globally to stop the spread is to dramatically limit movement—to shut a country down. The sooner a country acts, the sooner the sooner we can go back to a new normal.
The inaction we’ve seen in the West means COVID-19 will only get bigger and take longer to solve in their countries. Our new normal in Rwanda will come vastly before the West.
I am glad to be in Rwanda at this time of global crisis.
The story of Rwanda’s COVID-19 response should be a shining example for those countries with still few or no cases. It should be the playbook that others around the world can emulate.
Unfortunately, for most countries, it’s too late to stop widespread infection like we are doing in Rwanda. But as we’ve seen from the world, the worst time to act is tomorrow—you must make the difficult decisions today.
The writer is the Founder & Chairman of GET IT, and the Board President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Rwanda.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.