• Emery A. R.

The Coronavirus Outbreak in Rwanda: A National Nightmare

A passenger undergoing a temperature test (Image by the World Health Organization - Africa Region)

After Rwanda recorded its first COVID-19 case last weekend, its population now lives in permanent fear of contracting the virus, and the economic impact is starting to be felt across the nation.

The date of March 14, 2020, will be remembered by many Rwandans for many years ahead.

This is the day when the first case of the coronavirus “COVID-19” was recorded in the central/eastern African nation. An Indian national who had recently traveled from Mumbai, India was diagnosed positive for the COVID-19, five days after he arrived in the country’s capital city, Kigali.

After Rwanda’s Ministry of Health announced the news of the first COVID-19 case through a statement, everyone was shocked. People couldn’t believe that the infamous coronavirus was finally here – in their country that they hold dear.

“This is the end of the world”, some of the citizens started saying in basing on religious scriptures. “We need to pray to God to stop this deadly virus, to spare us and our families.”

Then, Social media exploded.

A picture of a certain Sharma – an Indian who owns a supermarket in Kigali city – started spreading all over major social media platforms in Rwanda. Allegedly, the picture was that of the Indian man who had just "brought" the virus to the country of A Thousand Hills.

However, the story was later debunked by the ministry of health that qualified it as Fake news.

Increase of COVID-19 cases

One day after the first coronavirus case was recorded – the cases were now five. A day later, seven and then eight. As of March 18, 2020; there are 11 recorded cases. However, no death from the coronavirus has not yet been recorded.

To prevent and slow down the spreading of the virus, the government of Rwanda took action.

The ministry of health released a statement on the new measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Citizens were advised to avoid large gatherings, frequently cleaning hands and avoid touching one another, especially through the cultural handshaking and hugging.

Then, the government ordered the closure of all public places including all churches, schools and other places with high potential of virus transmission for a two-week period.

So far, people have willingly followed these instructions.

Further, the government advised people to work from home where it’s possible.

However, this is likely to be impossible for most Rwandans who need to go to work to earn their daily living. People have no choice but to go to work. What has been put in place by some of the developed countries is totally impossible in developing countries.

“If I don’t work, hunger will kill me before I even contract the coronavirus”, told me one motorbike rider. “Most of these people you see in Kigali live on a daily basis. We can’t survive three days of no-work.”

Fear, Rumors, and Stigma

With the presence of the new coronavirus in Rwanda, everyone is panicking, afraid to be the next to contract the COVID-19.

Some wear masks, gloves and try to avoid crowded places. However, these preventive measures may not last long. RwF3,000 (cost for a pair of gloves and a mask) is not a small amount of money – in a country where 40% of the population lives on less than 2 US dollars a day.

Then come rumors. Some people think that the actual cases are much bigger than the ones reported. “Maybe there are dozens of cases”, wondered one person working in the health sector. “Maybe there are many others who have already contracted the virus that we don't know yet.”

In whatever case, considering the period that people with COVID-19 take to start showing symptoms (about two weeks); there are certainly other cases that haven’t yet been recorded.

Further, stigma is also deepening – especially against the nationals from countries where there are many recorded cases of COVID-19. These are Chinese, Italian nationals (generally Europeans) and now Indians.

Some people are now avoiding their restaurants, supermarkets, etc. Therefore, this could trigger sentiments and behaviors of a xenophobic character, or racist in the worst scenario among Rwandans.

This could seriously harm the country’s image of welcoming people which has contributed to its growing tourism sector.

Nowadays, coughing in the public attracts much attention than usual. Jokes like "You should go get tested for coronavirus" or "You are going to infect us" can hurt some people's feelings.

Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda to feel much of the "Coronavirus effect" (Image by Radisson)

The “Coronavirus effect” on the economy

Since its first appearing in December 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic is now present in more than a hundred countries and territories and has had huge negative impacts globally.

These impacts – also known as the coronavirus effect – have been especially felt in the economic sector.

Major leagues and sports events like the US National Basketball Association season, the England Premier League halted their operations as a measure to slow down the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Besides, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are likely to be canceled this year and maybe postponed for next year.

The air transport industry has also reported hundreds of billion US dollars losses in revenues so far.

International markets have shrunk as stock prices are hitting their all-time low levels.

As a consequence, major financial institutions have put in place measures to support their economies in this tough period.

The US Federal Reserve has cut the interest rate to near zero to encourage household spending, while the European Central Bank announced measures to support bank lending and expanded its asset purchase program by 120 billion euros ($135.28 billion).

The coronavirus effect is also felt in Rwanda's economy.

The country has so far lost about 5 Million USD since the COVID-19 outbreak. This was mainly due to the cancellation and postponement of six main international conferences and summits that were due to take place in the country. These are jobs, hotel revenues and other expected incomes that would have been injected in the national economy.

And still, the worst is yet to come.

Rwanda was to host the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) which is scheduled to take place in June this year. The event is expected to attract between 8,000 and 10,000 delegates from 54 countries members of the Commonwealth of Nations which is mainly composed of former British colonies.

The 2020 CHOGM is expected to have a huge positive impact on the national economy. However, the meeting is now in jeopardy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This would have a huge blow to the country’s economy where the government has put a lot of effort into increasing its tourism and conference hosting capacity as a strategy to boost the national economy.

The effect will mostly be felt by the hospitality industry, the small workers, drivers, sellers, etc. who would have earned good money during this high-profile meeting.

No solution on the near horizon

According to the World Health Organization, the cure for the Coronavirus has not yet been obtained. COVID-19 patients are submitted to simple treatments and most of them – especially the young ones and those without preexisting conditions – easily recover.

The much-elder patients mostly figure among the deceased.

Regarding the coronavirus vaccine, the world will have to wait about 18 months to see the first vaccines available for use – and this only in the best scenario. According to global health expert Jonathan Quick, “Getting a vaccine that’s proven to be safe and effective in humans takes one at best about a third of the way to what’s needed for a global immunization program.

Also, once the vaccines are ready – then comes the distribution problem. The poorer countries would need the intervention of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its goodwill partners like Gavi to facilitate the purchase of the vaccines for their population.

But until then, people will have to rely on simple prevention measures like social distancing and frequently washing hands as per WHO’s instructions.

With the current global spreading rate of the coronavirus, hundreds of millions (or even billions) of people will have contracted the virus, with a 1.4 to 2% fatality rate. Scenarios like the one from Italy – where 368 people died from the coronavirus in a single day – may happen again or even worsen.

Small economies like Rwanda’s will be seriously hit, and as a result, most people’s income will be lost – thus the difficulty in even affording their basic needs for living.

The COVID-19 nightmare has just started, people will have to learn to live with its consequences.

This article was originally published on Linkedin by the same author.

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