Rwanda and Tanzania have adopted two very distinct policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic. This Insight looks at how effective these responses have been in tackling the virus and at the wider political and economic impacts.
In a continent where many countries have weak public health systems, Rwanda has proactively developed an early response to the coronavirus.
In March the Government produced a National Preparedness and Response Plan. The plan was developed before the first case of coronavirus in the country had even been reported. It’s purpose was the prevention and control of the virus.
Lockdown in Rwanda
Rwanda was one of the first countries in Africa to impose a lockdown. Schools were closed from 15 March. On 19 March it shut down all air traffic. Two days later it closed land borders with its neighbours except for goods and cargo and imposed a nationwide lockdown.
The lockdown has been stringently enforced. The security forces are reported to have arrested people for violating social-distancing measures. In addition it is reported that the withholding of information related to contact tracing or Covid-19 symptoms “will be punished in accordance with applicable laws”.
Rwanda has one of the continent’s most innovative and coveted health care systems. It provides near-universal coverage and excellent community health care. It has been using drones to deliver medicines for some time. The Rwandan healthcare system is now using them to send public health messages to towns and rural communities and to provide images to help enforce the lockdown.
At the end of May, Rwanda reversed its planned easing of coronavirus restrictions after recording the first death from the virus and a rise in new cases.
How effective has the response been?
The number of tests that were conducted increased from a handful in mid-March to 3,495 per day in mid-May.
In contrast to Rwanda, Tanzania has adopted a much less rigorous approach to testing and lock downs.
The populist President Magufuli has sought to deny the presence and the effects of the disease.
He is accused of making statements which “appear to be informed more by his own personal worldview than any input from scientists” This includes reliance on religious faith – that God can save Tanzanians from coronavirus. On 29 April he declared the country corona-free thanks to the grace of God.
President Magufuli has maintained a tight control on information. There are concerns that the Government is not providing regular updates on infection rates. Health workers have claimed that despite the low figures, hundreds of people have in fact caught the virus. There are videos on social media of unusual night-time burials.
Reported cases of coronavirus in Tanzania are low. This might be because there is so little testing.
A limited lockdown
There has been a very limited lockdown in Tanzania. Schools and universities have closed. Sporting events have been suspended. But the government has also emphasised the importance of working hard and keeping the economy going.
How effective has the response been?
At 25 June, Tanzania had 509 reported cases of Covid-19 with a population of approximately 60 million people. There are 21 reported deaths from the disease. It is reported that Tanzania has conducted just 652 tests (as of 7 May). This compares to over 26,000 tests conducted in Kenya and nearly 45,000 in Uganda.
What can we learn?
It is to be expected that different countries will respond differently to public health crises.
The east African region has the second lowest number of reported cases of coronavirus in Africa. Only central Africa has fewer cases to date. Southern Africa in contrast has been hardest hit. It is too early to determine the reasons for this regional variation, but it is likely that the level of international travel into the regions is one factor. The extent to which lockdown measures are imposed and adhered to is another.
Lockdown measures will have unintended and undesirable economic consequences. Countries will seek to find a balance between reducing transmission while preventing or reducing social and economic disruption.
Economies with a large informal sector are likely to be hit hardest. In Rwanda, 74 per cent of women are in informal businesses, most without savings or social protection making them economically and socially vulnerable.
Tanzania has sought to avoid such vulnerabilities by ignoring the virus. Rwanda has been more proactive. But it may face greater economic recovery challenges even with the Government’s Rwf 100 billion recovery fund for the hardest hit sectors and help from the IMF.
From 1 July, eligible businesses will be able to apply for funding from the Economic Recovery Fund (ERF). These include the tourism, manufacturing, logistics, transport and some SMEs.
In June, the IMF approved an additional $111 million to help economic recovery under the Rapid Credit Facility. This brings the total allocated to Rwanda for emergency support to $220 million.
According to the Africa Centre for Disease Control, Africa needs more testing kits to quickly detect, isolate, and care for those who are infected. It also needs more healthcare workers and rapid responders trained to support contact tracing and link to community health care services. However, the precursor for this must be a willingness on the part of the government to use testing as a means of controlling the disease.
Covid 19: Africa and the African Union, London School of Economics.
About the author: Dr Anna Dickson is Head of the International Affairs and Defence section in the House of Commons Library.