Rwanda: How First African Nation to Impose COVID-19 Lockdown is Fighting Poverty

PULSE GLOBAL OUTLOOK 

Editor’s Note: Gerard Mporananayo is the founder and chairman of the Employment and Youth Empowerment Solution (EYES RWANDA) in Rwanda, an effort that grew out of the need to address the growing unemployment rate among young people and to identify initiatives to help Rwanda’s youth become entrepreneurs instead of job seekers. More than 20 years after the 1994 genocide that arrested the world’s attention, Rwanda with a population of over 12 million people, is still on the road to a full and inclusive recovery as it deals with extreme poverty. It also holds an equity distinction of having more women in parliament than men. 

In this column written for The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent anti-poverty think tank, Mporananayo, explains how Rwanda hit by COVID-19 is fighting back the virus on multiple levels with some proactive anti-poverty strategies and digital tools that arguably stand out as a model in the global war against the pandemic. From being the first country on the continent of Africa to institute a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, to a recent report that Cornel University just published a virus research by Rwandan experts, the country so far has registered no deaths in its 327 confirmed cases.  For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson the editor-in-chief of the Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org

By Gerard Mporananayo 

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound and serious impact on the global economy and Rwanda in particular. According to the World Bank, agriculture remains crucial for Rwanda’s economic growth and its efforts to reduce poverty because it is the backbone of the economy. 

For example, agriculture accounts for about 39% of the Rwanda’s GDP and provides 80% of employment, 63% of foreign exchange earnings and 90% of the nation’s food consumption needs. That means the government should invest more in agriculture income generating projects. 

In order for Rwanda to continue the fight against  the COVID-19 pandemic and support poor people whose lives have been endangered by the virus, the situation calls for both national and international measures to be adopted to combat the effects the pandemic is having on ordinary Rwandans as well as the need to recover from the current recession. The experience of China to date indicates that the right policies make a difference in battling the virus and reducing its impact, even though some of these policies come with strings attached when it involves African nations.  

Rwandan President Paul Kagame during a Facebook live Q&A interview at the conclusion of a 2016 World Economic Forum on Africa meeting in the capital Kigali. World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell photo.

In fact, in an aggressive bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Rwanda became the first African country to impose a nationwide lockdown. The office of the prime minister Édouard Ngirente announced on March 21 that the strict measures were in line with, “observing the global trend of the COVID-19 and considering the experiences of other countries,” and that “there is a clear need for additional steps to ensure that COVID-19 does not spread further in Rwanda.”

The announcement triggered a lot of reactions on social media including Twitter like this one from Umwali Ndekezi Parfaite: “Thank you for this needed decision if we want to save lives here in Rwanda. But I hope that you are also working in a way to provide food for families who survive on a daily income? There is a lot of people who can’t afford groceries for even three days.” 

Joli Tropisme who says she owns a restaurant in Rwanda, also welcomed the decision but only did so before talking about the complexities of the lockdown on entrepreneurs like her. 

“Yes good decision,” She wrote on Twitter and then posed the following questions: “As a restaurant owner doing take away, how can I ensure the transport for my team? Should I give them an authorization”?

So far Rwanda has reported 327 coronavirus cases and no deaths. Out of the confirmed cases, 237 are said to have recovered from the virus.  One of the nation’s daily newspapers, The New Times, reported on Monday that Cornel University in New York, published a COVID-19 research that was done by Rwandan experts. According to the report, “Rwandan medical researchers have discovered a new pooling algorithm of COVID-19 mass testing. It was conducted, approved and applied in Rwanda.” 

President Paul Kagame told the British publication, the Financial Times in a recent interview that, “We are not taking any chances. We are doing what we can to rein in this pandemic. We have been identifying, testing and isolating positive cases, and are now mostly focused on tracing contacts.” 

The Rwanda COVID-19 emergency responseproject is also focused on harnessing digital solutions and data analytical tools that will improve the management and containment of the COVID-19 response.  Building on the country’s strong track record on digital solutions, several innovations will be explored, including digital maps that allow visualizing the spread of the virus in real time, mobile apps for sending health messages, and telemedicine capability to allow for suspected cases to be assessed without the need for physical movements by patients. 

King Faisal Hospital is the largest referral hospital in Rwanda, which is owned by the government. Earlier this year, the government announced a $20 million (Rwf19 billion) major infrastructure upgrade for the hospital.

Limited travel means that many informal employees are already out of jobs.  Thousands of taxi-motor riders and others have also been rendered jobless. Local government ministry is already distributing food to households and individuals most impacted by the lockout of COVID-19. After the food distribution, the government offers relief to households where people relied on regular income, such as seasonal employment employees, and others whose jobs were suspended over the lockdown decisions.  

In addition to ongoing social security programs, the government has agreed that all cabinet members, permanent secretaries, heads of public institutions and other senior officials to forgo their salary for the month of April. Those who won’t receive their April pay are 34 members of the cabinet, 26 senators, 106 parliamentarians and hundreds of heads of public institutions. This is expected to raise nearly $1 million for use in the war against the coronavirus. 

Because unemployment, poverty, financial crisis, lower standards of living are all challenges that have now been exacerbated by the pandemic, the problem is how Rwanda as a developing country will be able to overcome the negative impact caused by the coronavirus? This is more so because Rwanda has been credited for reducing the number of people living below the poverty line from 57% in 2005 to 45% in 2010. Despite those figures, 63% of the population is still dealing with extreme poverty according to the World Bank, which is less than $1.25 a day.  

The Rwandan government has put some measures in place to protect the economy against the adverse effects of the pandemic. This involves the National Bank of Rwanda reducing interest rates to financial institutions working with it from 5%   to 4.5%. Such measure is expected to help banks reduce the interest rates to their clients. In the related content, financial institutions are also required to allow individuals businesses to be considered as collaterals since many people especially young people don’t have collaterals. Before the lockdown, the unemployment rate in Rwanda in general was 16.7% and 23% among young people, according to the Rwanda National Institute of Statistics. 

Despite the efforts of the government there is still a need to put in place sustainable solutions towards fighting poverty and the effects of the pandemic. This should include multifaceted ways to create opportunities for the unemployed and low income earners, improve their livelihoods through meaningful productivity, and youth empowerment through agriculture and financial literacy. Access to financial literacy is more than a right, but also a fundamental need to every Rwandan, which if implemented, will help position our young people for a stronger future including employment in the financial services sector. 

Financial literacy can also spur entrepreneurship because young people can be exposed to income generating activities that will promote entrepreneurship in ways that can lead to the creation and supply of jobs. 

Moving from relief to sustainability must be a shared effort for all Rwandans and the world at large. Recovering from the effects of COVID-19 means we must do more to invest in micro agricultural projects that are relevant to the needs of our communities and can stimulate our economy.

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