Denis Bikesha
Dean. School of Law. University of Rwanda


Prior to the first COVID-19 case in Rwanda, there were precautionary measures that had been announced by the Prime Minister on 6 March 2020. People had been advised to wash their hands regularly and congregants were instructed to be more careful; all the churches were required to make available sanitizers at the entrances. In the Catholic church, usually, there is a step of sharing peace in their Holy Mass but there was neither hag or shaking hands as a sign of sharing the peace of the Lord. Also, prior to entering the church, people were supposed to wash their hands. Apart from observing the precautionary measures that were in place as mentioned above, people continued to work as usual until new instructions appeared after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed on 14 March 2020 by the Ministry of Health, an Indian citizen who arrived from Mumbai, India on 8 March 2020. The patient had no symptoms upon arrival in Rwanda and reported himself to a health facility on 13 March 2020. Thereafter, he was immediately tested and started treatment in isolation from other patients and his contacts were traced.

The President of the Republic, Paul Kagame, tweeted that: “Rwanda has registered its first COVID-19 case. As emphasized by others, panic in this situation does not help. Focus and simple but effective measures are key to keeping each other and everyone safe.” The President advised the citizens not to be frightened by the COVID-19 outbreak but to instead follow the instructions meant to curb the spread of the disease. This was the first time the President of the Republic commented on the situation of Rwanda during the outbreak. He had commented on COVID-19 before Rwanda confirmed the first COVID-19 case; he wanted the Government to prepare in time because he predicted the outbreak would reach Rwanda any time since it was moving fast worldwide. Media outlets in Rwanda and abroad wrote about the President’s frustration when the Minister of Health misrepresented the facts on how much equipped Rwanda was, leading to her resignation.

After announcing the first case of COVID-19 in Rwanda, on 14 March 2020, the Ministry of Health issued a statement on how people were should behave in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus. All places of worship were closed; on 15 March 2020 all the churches in Rwanda remained closed but some started worshipping in studios of TV channels and radio stations so that a good number of adherents would follow prayers with ease in their homes. Also, all the schools were instructed to close from 16 March 2020. Employees were encouraged to work from home where the situation allowed, weddings were advised to be postponed and burial ceremonies to be attended by few people. Businesses and restaurants stayed open but respecting the social distance of at least one meter, unnecessary movements were to be avoided and public transportation was supposed to continue as long as the buses were not overcrowded. Seemingly these measures appeared easy to comply until other instructions were issued as the situation of COVID-19 became tense. Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA) disseminated most of the details about the COVID-19 outbreak in Rwanda. RBA is a national public broadcaster operating a network of one national TV channel and eight radio stations across the country thus allowing the flow of information to reach many people. The Government of Rwanda instructed people to report any symptoms of COVID-19 through a toll-free number - 114.

Unfolding events of Lockdown

On 21 March 2020, the Prime Minister of Rwanda announced the lockdown with serious precautions. This was one week after the first case of Coronavirus was confirmed in Rwanda and initial instructions for light precautionary measures on 6 March 2020. These instructions included avoiding shaking hands, avoiding unnecessary movements, avoiding coughing and sneezing in close distance with other people, washings hands regularly etc. The 21 March instructions were announced for an initial period of two weeks. The instructions contained measures that were not easy to comply with, but as the Rwandan saying provides “Laws are heavier than stones”, and people started to abide.

In the announcement, it was mentioned that unnecessary movements and visits outside the homes were not allowed; electronic payments and online banking services were encouraged other than visiting banks or ATMs; employees (public and private) were instructed to work from home; borders were closed; travels between different cities and districts of the country were not permitted; shops and markets were closed; motorbikes were not permitted to carry passengers; all bars were closed, and restaurants and cafés were only allowed to provide takeaway services. To make sure that the measures taken were to be respected, the Prime Minister instructed the government institutions and security organs to follow up.

On 1 April 2020, President Paul Kagame convened and chaired a Cabinet virtual meeting that extended the existing measure for more two weeks (until at 23:59 on Sunday 19 April 2020). As these extensions were made, the number of confirmed cases of COVID 19 was also increasing. This is why on 17 April, the Cabinet sat again and made another extension that will end on 30 April. What will follow thereafter is not clear because one cannot foresee the defeat of COVID-19 by that date. In the meantime, on 18 April, the Minister of Health urged all the people to wear facemasks. When this was announced, there was some confusion because in his interview the Minister of Health mentioned that the facemasks were to be worn in public and at home. People started to wonder why family members staying in the same house were advised to wear masks at home. It was later clarified that those to wear the masks at home were those families that live in home that have different families in the neigbourhood. These instructions were contrary to the Ministry’s prior advice emphasizing that citizens should leave facemasks for COVID-19 patients and practitioners that were directly interacting with them.

Rwanda’s approach was generally emulating the Chinese measures but one would wonder why wearing facemasks was discouraged while the Chinese used them and had recorded good results. However, it is important to note that Rwanda was abiding by the World Health Organisation (WHO) advice. According to Science Alert, the World Health Organisation (WHO) currently discourages mask use: “There is currently no evidence that wearing a mask (whether medical or other types) by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.” It is not yet clear what the current stand of the WHO is but they have recommended a special mask known as N95 masks or equivalent.

Assistance offered during the lockdown

On 27 March 2020 many media outlets announced that the President of the Republic Paul Kagame was going to address the nation. Every Rwandan was waiting curiously to hear what he had prepared for his people. In his speech, he noted some points he had mentioned before on Twitter but also added that there were intentions for the Government to help those who were hungry because of the lockdown. He said that those who had no foodstuffs were to receive food. One day after his speech, some people started receiving food in their neighborhoods where distributors found them with foodstuffs such as beans, maize flour, cooking oil to mention but a few.

As the Government was distributing foodstuffs, people were assisting each other in the vicinities too. People collected money after identifying those neighbours who were hungry and made a budget to buy foodstuffs that was later on distributed to the needy.

Also, the President of the Republic, Cabinet Ministers and other senior officials surrendered their salaries of April 2020 for the most vulnerable people during the COVID-19 lockdown. The estimated number of officials that fall in this group is about 260 persons that will raise about USD 74,000. Although this is a very good idea, neither the media nor the Government revealed any details.

Banks have communicated that those clients who have bank loans may be adjusted and their payments of interest was postponed. Some banks have also contributed to the initiatives of the Government to feed the hungry during the lockdown. The Minister of Finance who saw it as a burden during this period of lockdown also suspended the money that employees have been contributing to the “Agaciro Development Fund”.

The Prosecutor General of the National Public Prosecution Authority announced categories of detainees that were to be released on 16 March. The Spokesperson of the Judiciary also announced the suspension of all Rwandan court hearings.

Precautionary Measures against COVID 19 vis à vis Constitutionalism

The 2003 Constitution of Rwanda, as amended, provides for the state of siege and a state of emergency: “A state of siege and a state of emergency are provided for by law and declared by the President of the Republic, following approval by Cabinet.” The same Constitution further provides for situations when a state of siege and a state of emergency can be declared: in the first place “a state of siege cannot be declared on the entire or a part of the national territory except in the event of effective or imminent aggression by a foreign State, serious threat or danger to constitutional order.” Also, “ a state of emergency is declared on the entire or part of the national territory when the country faces a public disaster or constitutional crisis whose gravity does not warrant the declaration of a state of siege.” Considering the situations as provided in the Constitution, they differ in gravity whereby the former is graver than the latter.

There is a need to find out how Rwandans understand a disaster. The law regulating disaster management provides for the definition of a disaster as “serious calamity occurring on a small or large area of the country involving loss of life, physical or psychological injury or important material, economic, or environmental damages, which exceeds the ability of the affected population to overcome with its own resources.” Does this mean that COVID-19 is a disaster? Has the presence of COVID-19 outbreak let to the state of emergency? This may lead to a long legal debate; in the first place, one may consider COVID-19 a disaster as defined in the Rwandan legal framework- COVID-19 is a threat to the lives of the citizens of Rwanda and other residents in the country that exceeds the ability of the population to overcome it with its own resources and this is why the Government has intervened.

However, following the steps to dealing with COVID-19 as mentioned above, one may not conclude that the leadership of Rwanda took all the steps of declaring that the country is in the state of emergency as provided for in the Constitution. It is important to mention that some steps taken may be interpreted in the lenses of the state of emergency. For instance, the Prime Minister specified that the precautionary measures taken such as lockdown was applicable to the whole country and mentioned its consequences, outlining which rights were suspended. What has not been observed is that it is not President of the Republic but the Prime Minister that has been communicating these measures contrary to what the Constitution provided in cases of the state of emergency. The question then is whether the President of the Republic can delegate the powers to declare the state of emergency.

The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda provides for the state of emergency in which the COVID-19 pandemic fits as a disaster that needed the President to intervene and declare the state of emergency. The declaration of a state emergency is part of disaster management and in this case to control the spread of COVID-19. This has been done and Rwanda is one of the African countries that have responded with precautionary measures that have so far yielded good fruits, but it is not yet clear why the situation was not declared a state of emergency according to the Constitution. As I write this piece, Rwanda has confirmed over 150 cases of COVID 19 but no deaths and more than half of the individuals that tested positive have recovered and were discharged from hospital. The procedures in terms of lockdown and related measures have been discussed by the Cabinet Ministers in virtual meetings chaired by the President of the Republic, but resolutions have been announced by the Prime Minister. This is a good practice of democratic decision making as several technicians in areas such as healthcare and others have informed the resolutions.