For over a hundred days from April to July 1994, Rwanda, a landlocked East African nation, was thrust in the international spotlight for the wrong reasons.
Brutality rarely seen before erupted during a civil war between Hutus and Tutsis. Over 800,000 people were massacred, and some 250,000 women were raped, resulting in over 20,000 childbirths.
Despite this genocide and the ensuing calamity, Rwanda did not end up as a failed state. It recovered from this nightmare in the years that followed, making commendable progress. Today, anyone visiting the country will see few scars of its harrowing past.
Rwandans did not dwell on self-pity and allow it to get the better of them. Instead, they steeled themselves with resilience and determination and moved forward zealously.
Fast forward a quarter of a century: Rwanda has made notable strides in many areas – a robust economy, ICT development and women’s empowerment. The country has progressed beyond expectation and is today a model for other African and developing countries. Only the Covid pandemic since 2020 has jolted it.
Distinctive challenges confronted Rwanda when the pandemic hit the country in March 2020. But with impressive strides made in healthcare over the last 20 years, the country is well-positioned to confront the crisis: it is widely acknowledged as a trailblazer in healthcare in the East African region.
In 2018, when neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo was infected with the Ebola virus, Rwanda spontaneously went on high alert. Recognising it had limited resources to deal with a potential epidemic then, it realised it needed a well-coordinated, systematic approach to tackle the scourge.
So, when faced with the Covid pandemic last year, the country quickly formed a national crisis committee of key ministries, chaired by the prime minister. The committee set up a Covid joint taskforce on 9 March 2020, which produced a national coronavirus preparedness and response plan – just in time to deal with the first case.
To tackle the pandemic, Rwanda put in place a system for official government and healthcare communications, to cover case counts, prevention and screening protocols, treatment facility practices and behavioural guidelines for the public.
With a population of 12.6 million, Rwanda has so far recorded just 39,914 cases, 27,272 recoveries and 448 deaths as at 20 June 2021 – a relatively positive reflection of the country’s handling of the pandemic.
The Ministry of Health, the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, and the Epidemic and Surveillance Response Division have collaborated on preparatory measures since the pandemic began in January 2020.
The coronavirus preparedness and response plan was an extensive six-month plan to establish a national incident management system and detailed four phases of a comprehensive national response. Notable strategies included disseminating public information through drones, robots for screening and inpatient care and official communications through social media platforms to combat misinformation and mobilise a cohesive response from the people.
Rwanda’s youth have assisted the government in the Covid battle. Over 800 youth volunteers have been stationed on Kigali streets, market entrances, bus parks and bus stops to educate Rwandans about health guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus. They stop and talk to people and provide them information about preventive and protective measures laid out in the guidelines and protocols outlined by the health authorities.
The youths advise shoppers and vendors regularly on wearing face masks, washing their hands regularly and practising physical distancing. The youths, comprising students, fresh graduates and entrepreneurs, work in a volunteer group that was formed in 2013. Some are jobless while others have jobs but find time for service.
Volunteers work with the Kigali and Rwandan Police. Members often receive training and capacity building lessons on particular tasks before being deployed for activities that supplement government efforts.
In the past, youths were engaged in awareness-raising campaigns to fight malnutrition, human and drug trafficking and corruption. It is a demanding and challenging job requiring a lot of sacrifice without expecting a reward, but the youths appear committed to trying to save lives.
They face challenges though: some people are reluctant to accept sound advice and see the youths as intrusive, but most accept their advice positively.
The volunteers explain health guidelines politely and in a language everybody understands. Their message is a reminder to those who do not have time to listen to the radio or follow other media.
The youth volunteers have also engaged in community policing activities, which had led to fall in crime during the pandemic. They are constructively engaged in creating awareness, and their success is manifested in public compliance with health guidelines.
Many people appreciate the sacrifice of these youth volunteers who have collaborated with the authorities to curb the spread of the virus. The programme demonstrates the successful engagement of the youth in the Rwandan development agenda.
The proactive role of Rwanda’s youth is perhaps one reason the country has been able to contain the pandemic more effectively than some other bigger, more developed nations.
Other countries should try to emulate this once-forgotten nation. It is not too late to learn from a country like Rwanda – a nation once completely ignored by the international community when it needed outside help the most during its darkest days in 1994.