These covid-19 times have brought many changes to Rwanda, including a new fascination. It is not fear of its deadly effects, although that remains a real threat. Or the admiration of how government officials, healthcare workers and the police have handled it. Approval for what they are doing keeps growing.
The novel fascination is an unusual interest in numbers that Rwandans are showing. The ministry of health publishes daily updates on covid-10 cases: total cases, new infections, where they occurred and among what category of people, and recoveries.
These numbers are keenly watched, not just by the usual suspects – professional statisticians and researchers, academics and policy-makers – but by practically every section of the population. And it is not random numbers gazing, either. They are looking at a variety of information: location and spread of occurrence, among what kind of people, and trends – whether rising or falling or holding steady or fluctuating and for how long.
This sort of attention to numbers is new and rather sophisticated, one of the many effects of covid-19 – the good one. Hopefully it will last (the attention, I mean). Outside academia and official circles numbers are not the most attractive things. Because they are exact and unambiguous, they impose a certain kind of discipline that most people do not have. Most prefer generalities.
Ask the average person, or even some among the most educated, a question that demands a certain degree of accuracy and you are likely to get something non-specific or at best an approximation. Nothing exact. How many people were at the meeting might elicit an answer like this: between thirteen and fourteen, which is, of course, meaningless. Or you may get this from the person who took the minutes of the meeting: they were thirteen or fourteen.
These are such small numbers it is possible to remember who attended and give exact numbers. But we do not. There seems to be a reluctance to being definite about certain things, especially those to do with quantity. We prefer approximations or even evade giving anything that suggests a number.
Reasons for this are partly cultural. For instance, no one would readily mention the number of their offspring or livestock. A vague reference or outright evasion may just do. It is also probably the result of attitudes developed during past rule. Reluctance to be exact is a way of being non-committal but without appearing to be so, or a subtle refusal to be held responsible because of the fear of consequences. It is one way of trying to escape from accountability.
But with covid-19 numbers, it is different. All eyes are glued to the daily updates. Everyone can tell you how many cases were recorded in Rusizi or Kigali, or indeed in any other part of the country, on what day. They observe the trend and can tell you what government is likely to do if the trajectory continues in a particular direction. They can now anticipate government’s action and can tell where there will be a partial or complete lockdown, whether it will be localised or spread wider.
We are watching the numbers like others do stocks on the stock markets. The trading trend on the stock exchange determines when it is the right time to buy or sell.
So what is responsible for this change in Rwandans’ attitude to numbers? One reason is that they concern their lives directly. Depending on which direction they are going, the numbers can spell whether one has a job or not, whether their businesses thrive or fail, or whether they live or die. And these are not mere numbers; there are faces behind them, probably of people from the neighbourhood.
Most other numbers, such as GDP, the different development indices, even birth rate or mortality rate, are just numbers that ordinary people do not immediately connect with. They are distant, faceless figures.
There also seems to be a growing consciousness away from the thinking that numbers are only for the experts. They are increasingly being looked at as a useful measure of many things.
Wellbeing, for instance, is no longer measured purely in terms of whether the granary is full and the family have had enough to eat. It is more about the quality of what they have, how sustainable it is, and how their future is ensured. In this sort of measurement, numbers as a comparative tool or indicators of movement in whatever direction are increasingly becoming a most reliable instrument for everyone.
Research into why this is happening might come up with interesting answers, one of which could be that there is a direct relationship between mindset change and a climate of progress and people’s participation in their own governance, economic activity. In this particular instance, this is also an unlikely dividend from a terrible pandemic.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.Follow https://twitter.com/jrwagatare