Rwanda continues to impress with it’s COVID-19 management, but it is a marathon and not a sprint. There have been localized surges within the country, initially in Western Province and now within Kigali. As of early September 2020, there have been just over 4,000 cases and 16 deaths. Most news coverage of Rwanda has focused on the introduction, in very limited numbers, of robots in corona care.

More typical of its prompt epidemiological response, the Government of Rwanda announced updated COVID-19 prevention measures on August 26:

  • Movements are prohibited from 7:00 PM to 5:00 AM.    
  • Land borders remain closed, except for cargo and returning Rwandan citizens and legal residents. 
  • The Kigali International Airport remains open with a limited flight schedule. 
  • Public transport between Kigali and other districts is prohibited. Private transport between Kigali and other districts (except for Rusizi District) will continue.

Social distancing and personal hygiene measures remain. It was initially thought schools would reopen in September, but that has now been pushed back and we are waiting for an update. Motorcycle taxi drivers often spray down riders with sanitizer, they remove clear face coverings from helmets, and riders must cover their heads with cloth before putting on the driver’s helmet. It is extremely rare to see anyone in public without a mask, and even those wearing their masks below their noses may be taken to the national stadium for COVID-prevention “education” that can last overnight. With members of the COVID national response team, I recently co-authored an article under review by the Rwanda Public Health Bulletin on pandemic response and it’s localized economic implications.

The unique element to containing the pandemic in Rwanda is that it is approached as a national security issue. This can be seen in the army soldiers who patrol residential streets to identity rogue street vendors and the police on nearly every major street corner to pull over drivers without masks. And it certainly should be seen through this security lens.

Mass casualties from diseases are destabilizing to populations. Healthcare costs can detract from expenditures on “traditional” security measures–border controls, military, security technology, etc. Infectious diseases limit military responses to international and external security threats, including if members of the armed forces become infected themselves. Additionally, many security measures require physical proximity, which should be limited during pandemics. Some of these interplays between security and public health are explored by Oshewolo and Nwozor (2020).

Economic collapses resulting from pandemics also threaten national security. Poverty is linked to outbreaks of civil unrest, particularly among those believe in resource-driven conflicts, i.e. too little stuff for too many people. Rates of violences tend to be inversely proportional to employment levels in a variety of contexts. Even the inability to forecast one’s financial future can lead to insecurity that makes individual and group behavior unpredictable. Economic instability can then, in turn, create further political and social instability.

In this holistic sense, COVID-19 response is really a test of overall state capacity. Rwanda’s lucid reaction is intricately connected to its ability to manage revenue in general (use of tax dollars), monitor its citizens (the national census), and rule of law (low crime rates).

All nations, and especially developing ones, are right to view corona as a public health and safety threat as Rwanda’s leadership does.