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Coronavirus: What lessons can we learn from Rwanda?

  • Published at 09:16 pm July 16th, 2020
Motorbike taxi drivers get instuctions on how to use the new GPS cashless payment device given by the government at Nyamirambo stadium, in Kigali on May 29, 2020 AFP

Rwanda implemented full lockdown a week after its first case was reported in mid-March

Rwanda’s strong healthcare system and strictly coordinated prevention measures against Covid-19 have helped the country to record only four deaths from the disease so far. 

As the pandemic threatens to gather momentum in Africa, other governments there could benefit from lessons we have learnt.

Washington-based media organization National Public Radio has tried to analyze Rwanda’s success.

Rwanda implemented full lockdown a week after its first case was reported in mid-March. 

A week later, it set up a contact-tracing system and implemented testing for all staff policing borders, as well as those working in public spaces such as banks and bars. 

As of Thursday, 194,802 citizens had been tested for Covid-19. 

The nation’s community health network has enabled the government — with help from the private sector — to identify populations in need of extra support.

"So whenever someone is driving a vehicle, bicycle, motorcycle or even walking, everyone is asked if you wish to get tested," says Sabin Nsanzimana, director general of the Rwanda Biomedical Center, which is the arm of the ministry of health that's in charge of tackling Covid-19. 

Health officials in personal protective equipment administer the test. Nsanzimana says the testing is voluntary, although some others say refusal is frowned upon.

The sample collection — from a swab up the nose — and filling out the contact information paperwork takes about five minutes.

"All these samples are sent that day to the lab," Nsanzimana says. "We have a big lab here in Kigali. We also have six other labs in the other provinces."

Despite being classified by the World Bank as a low-income country, and despite its limited resources, Rwanda has vowed to identify every coronavirus case. 

Anyone who tests positive is immediately quarantined at a dedicated Covid-19 clinic. Any contacts of that case who are deemed at high risk are also quarantined, either at a clinic or at home, until they can be tested.

Comprehensive contact tracing is a task that has overwhelmed countries with far more resources than Rwanda. Rwanda's per capita income is roughly $2,000 per year. Yet all testing and treatment for the virus is provided for free.

It costs the government between $50 and $100 to run a single coronavirus test, Nsanzimana says. 

In order to test thousands a day, Rwanda has started using a process called "pool testing." 

Material from 20-25 nasal swabs are all put into one vial and run through the machine. 

This allows them to test far more samples at once. If they get a positive result, then all the swabs that went into that initial vial are tested individually to pinpoint the person who's infected.

Since recording its first case in mid-March, the country of 12 million has recorded just over 1,400 cases. Ohio has a similar size population and has recently been reporting roughly 1,200 cases a day.

Rwanda mobilized community health care workers and police and college students to work as contact tracers. It set up national and regional command posts to track cases. It's even using human-size robots in the Covid-19 clinics to take patients' temperatures and deliver supplies.

Whether the people trust or fear the government, Rwandans listen to their government and have been following the orders regarding masks, washing hands and staying home.

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