How Rwanda got it right on coronavirus

Friday July 10 2020

A staff of the Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) screens passengers at a bus station in Kigali, Rwanda on March 22, 2020. PHOTO | FILE | AFP


Timely interventions, meticulous contact tracing and scaled-up testing has seen Rwanda emerge as a model of Covid-19 handling in the region as it recorded only three deaths, even as it slowly reopens its economy.

Kigali recently announced that it was reopening its airspace for international passenger flights from August, coming barely a month after it also allowed its tourism facilities to reopen. This comes as the country overseas a meticulous Covid-19 testing and contact tracing while trying to keep the rate of community infections low.

In late June, the country earned praise from the European Union Council, which alongside 14 other countries recommended the lifting of travel restrictions, with Germany’s Robert Koch Institute declaring it to “no longer a Covid-19 risk area.”

So far, the country has confirmed 1,175 Covid-19 cases, from over 150,000 tests in comparison with Kenya’s 8,528 cases from 195,508 tests done over a similar period.

So how is Kigali seeming to get it right?

Rwanda’s systematic containment measures, that involved strict enforcement of lockdown rules on neighborhoods like Rubavu and Rusizi with suspected Covid-19 cases to suppress community infections worked. 


Like Kenya, parts of the country were put on cessation of movement measures. 


However, unlike Kenya where policing and enforcement was clouded in corruption, allowing for transmissions, in Rwanda, civil obedience ensured that this measure succeeded, which saw some of these areas' restrictions lifted after they were no Covid-19 cases.

“We conducted several surveys in Rubavu after it had been placed under lockdown and we did not find any more community transmissions. That is unlike Rusizi, which is still facing community transmissions,” Dr Sabin Nsanzimana, the director of Rwanda Biomedical Centre told The EastAfrican.

Rubavu was able to have its lockdown lifted, while Rusizi remains under the restrictions as the government tries to stop community transmissions.

This is in contrast to Kenya where community discipline has proven to be an issue. Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe has gone on record to express his frustration with Kenyans for flouting Covid-19 regulations issued by his Ministry.

Abuses by the Kenya police have also been cited as a weak point that could undermine the government’s ability to gain trust and cooperation of citizens in its efforts against the virus.


In June alone, Rwanda recorded over 30 cases, hitting the 1,000 mark. In comparison with Kenya, which recorded cases and is nearing the 9,000 mark, yet Kigali was first in the region to confirm covid-19 patients.

Rwanda has also scaled up its testing, doing an average of 4,000 tests daily, which gives it a clear picture of the mapping it requires in terms of interventions. 

Last week, it began implementing a random testing scheme on the streets of the capital Kigali, with further drive-through testing at the national stadium as it hoped to increase the number of its populace screened in order to get a better picture of the Covid-19 statistics.

The Rwanda Biomedical Centre says that the Covid-19 street survey testing will be targeting 5,000 people daily. It will target all entry points of Kigali and neighbourhoods as the country ramps us the drive. 

“On July 2, we are launching a Covid-19 street testing survey in Kigali and at its entry points. Candidates will be randomly selected and asked to consent to the testing. This is a 5-minute drive through, where car occupants are not required to vacate their vehicles,” Rwanda Biomedical Centre said last week.

“This operation will provide information about the Covid-19 status in Kigali and will lead to tactical response activities. A request is made to all Kigali residents to cooperate with RBC teams for the sake of successful completion of this important activity. The Covid-19 street survey testing going on in Kigali will also be targeting moto riders and private car drivers, we will be testing bus drivers and passengers.” 

Unlike its East African counterparts, the county has also opted for an algorithm-driven pool testing, which is way cheaper and offers quick results.

Pool testing basically entails combining samples from a group in a single tube and testing using molecular biology detection methods all together. If the pool is negative, then all the group is deemed negative, but if it turns positive, then the samples undergo individual tests. 

This means reduced screening costs for the Kigali administration, while allowing it to scale up its daily virus testing.


Kigali’s meticulous contact tracing and subsequent quarantine is also being lauded as an effective intervention tool in trying to limit community spread, as agencies use local leaders to make this a success. 

The employment of technology and phone tools in its contact tracing is also working for the country. The Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority now relies on phone data profiles to trace people who had contact with Covid-19 patients. 

The Authority is also able to use pings from mobile phone towers to trace these patients and avoid cases of them disappearing in the community.