Rwanda has 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19, as of March 19. It joins 30 other African countries in its attempt to measure and control the spread of the virus. The airport is closed to all traffic for 30 days starting today. Rwanda is currently in semi-quarantine, with schools and public buildings closed and all large gatherings like weddings banned. Traffic on the roads is light and restaurants are empty. Even informal walking vendors are staying home, which is worrisome because many of them live around the poverty line on day-to-day earnings and have little in savings to get them through.
Rwanda recently dealt with a health privacy issue that is fairly unique. There has been an ongoing problem with people sharing photographs of individual identity cards on social media as a form of identifying people of interest. Tragically, this occurred when a young woman jumped off a high rise in downtown Kigali, and many erroneously forwarded the ID card of another young woman around their networks, misidentifying her. A different violation of privacy ushered in corona anxiety here when a health worker at a local hospital forwarded a photograph of the Rwandan ID of an Indian national who had come in for a Corona test on March 8.
I received this WhatsApp message from a group this past Saturday:
Good afternoon, everyone, If anyone has visited —– Supermarket location at —– since 8th March, 2020, kindly visit the hospital ASAP. The person tested positive is the owner of that supermarket and he has been working from there he returned to Rwanda from Mumbai. Thank you.
Within hours, I then received this from another source:
Ministry of Health (@RwandaHealth) Tweeted: NOTICE: The ID card circulating on social media belongs to Mr. —– who is not infected with COVID-19 and is not connected to the confirmed case announced earlier. The Ministry of Health condemns in the strongest terms the sharing of unverified information.
This incident is unfortunate for the future of testing. Without faith in the professionalism of healthcare workers and their willingness to maintain privacy, new patients will be more hesitant to get tested. Testing capacity depends on people being willing to present themselves voluntarily at health centers and feeling safe doing so. The reaction by the Health Ministry was swift, however.
Since then, the price of certain key items has gone up. Some pharmacies were price gauging for antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers, e.g. $30 USD for a bottle of Purell. Customers promptly reported them to government agencies (there is a national number to report such issues) and prices have mostly normalized. Fresh fruit and vegetables have not leveled out, however, and so many Rwandans are consuming only shelf-stable foods like rice and porridge.
Rwandans are no strangers to health scares, e.g. Ebola from neighboring DRC, and are, as a whole, very rules-abiding folks. They respect their government and follow directives. Despite Rwanda’s high population density, I am hopeful for COVID-19 management here.