Rwanda treads carefully in gradual re-opening

Saturday June 6 2020

An officer walks between people standing in

An officer walks between people standing in white circles to adhere to social distancing to curb the spread of the coronavirus as they wait for a bus at Nyabugogo bus station in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 4, 2020. PHOTO | SIMON WOHLFAHRT | AFP 

JOHNSON KANAMUGIRE
By JOHNSON KANAMUGIRE
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IVAN R. MUGISHA
By IVAN R. MUGISHA
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Mass testing and a low infection and death rate has enabled Rwanda to start gradually re-opening the economy, even as schools, churches and bars remain shut.

Commercial motorcyclists and public transportation between Kigali city and country provinces resumed operations on June 2, after three months of shutdown.

The exceptions are Western province districts Rusizi and Rubavu on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which remain under lockdown as new Covid-19 cases were attributed to cross-border movement.

Commercial motorcyclists (boda bodas) buzzed upon returning to work after months with no work.

Rwandans of all calibres and small business owners who use commercial motorcyclists as a reliable, cheap and fast mode of transport, celebrated their return to work.

“The lockdown was probably the worst experience of my life. It reached a point where I was sure that life would never return to normal, and that I was no longer man enough to provide for my family,” Wenceslas Ndayishimye, a commercial motorcyclist in Kigali, told The EastAfrican.

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“Since March, I have been doing petty jobs to sustain my family.  We were allowed to work by delivering food and other things, but there was little business for that. Now that I am back to work, customers are numerous and this has made me happy,” he added.

All motorcyclists must have hand sanitisers and masks, and ensure that their clients observe guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health.

Just like Mr Ndayishimye, many Rwandans risked hunger during the coronavirus pandemic due to unemployment.

The government estimated that Rwf133 billion (about $140 million) is required to implement a social protection response.

Now the economy is expected to rebound after all indicators had sharply declined since the lockdown in March.

In the second week of April—during the height of the coronavirus pandemic—total turnover and transactions declared by businesses fell by 46 per cent and 77 per cent year-on-year, respectively. As a result, Rwanda suffered a total tax loss estimated at Rwf556 billion ($583 million) for two consecutive fiscal years (2019/20 and 2020/21), compared with earlier projections.

Rwanda’s strategy as a regional hub for tourism and meetings was hit hard, with the Rwanda Convention Bureau estimating a loss of $25 million from the cancellation of international conferences such as the Commonwealth Heads of States Summit.

Prior to the pandemic, Rwanda’s economy had recorded strong growth, reaching a peak of 9.4 per cent in 2019—among the highest on the continent.

To get back to its growth trajectory, Rwanda says it needs up to Rwf882 billion ($926 million) until 2021, which is equivalent to an increase in fiscal deficit of about 4.4 per cent of GDP on average per year.

Taking it slow

Gradual reopening of the economy has seen people move freely from 5am to 9pm, measures that will be reviewed in two weeks depending on the pandemic situation.

The country has overseen mass testing in all its districts, with over 70,000 tests carried out.

Masks are worn in public at all times; it is rare to find an individual without one as the police have warned they will arrest those who do not abide by the guidelines.

Even with the gradual reopening of the economy, Rwanda’s borders remain closed to movement of people. Only transportation of goods, and cargo trucks are allowed, with not more than two people on board.

Schools will remain closed until September. Mass gatherings in public spaces and homes are prohibited but no-contact sports like tennis are allowed in public places.

Funeral gatherings do not exceed 30 people, while civil marriage ceremonies should not have more than 15 people.

However, illegal border crossings have continued to complicate the fight against the coronavirus. Many informal traders navigate the porous borders.

These illegal border crossings risk importing new infections, particularly from DRC and Tanzania, where government assessments have found a surge in positive coronavirus tests in two weeks, particularly of long distance truckers, their contacts and residents.

"Illegal border crossing is both unlawful and risky to one’s life. These illegal and unnecessary movements can be the source of infections and its spread to either country. We urge these communities living along borderlines to be responsive and equally protect themselves from the virus by reporting these illegal movements," John Bosco Kabera, spokesperson of Rwanda National Police, told The EastAfrican.

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