Safer in Rwanda: Other Countries Are Taking COVID-19 Seriously, and It Shows

As an American documentary filmmaker on location in Rwanda, I saw what it takes to successfully flatten the curve of rising COVID-19 cases and keep it down.

Rwanda mandates testing and quarantine upon arrival. They even dictate the hotel where you’ll stay for your quarantine, and make sure dedicated COVID-19 hotel staff are waiting for you at the airport.

After 24 hours in quarantine, my COVID-19 test comes back negative and it’s time to start filming. (Photo by Beth Murphy/GroundTruth)

Testing is rapid with results guaranteed and delivered within 24 hours.

Temperature-taking is ubiquitous.

Mask-wearing and social distancing is aggressively enforced. Near my hotel in Gisenyi, I watched 25 runners get hauled off by police for exercising in a group without face coverings.

Runner getting arrested in Gisenyi, Rwanda for not wearing a mask while exercising. Not seen here is the bus with 24 other runners who were also hauled away to a nearby stadium for 24-hours as part of Rwanda’s non-compliance penalties. (Photo by Beth Murphy/GroundTruth)

Hand-washing stations and sanitizer dispensers are outside virtually every business—and there’s someone watching to make sure you use them.

Strict rules governing gatherings like weddings and funerals require guests to prove they are COVID-19-free.

A neon vest-wearing Anti-Corona Task Force patrols markets to insist on COVID-19 compliance, and police officers stand on roadsides, pulling over cars when they spot unmasked drivers and passengers.

A member of Rwanda’s Anti-Corona Task Force makes sure people are complying with COVID-19 guidelines at a local market in Gisenyi. (Photo by Beth Murphy/GroundTruth)

There’s a country-wide curfew—if you’re out past 10 p.m., prepare to be arrested.

And, when a COVID-19 case is discovered, the entire surrounding area is put on lockdown—no one in, and no one out.

While all this enforced vigilance made me a little nervous, I also felt incredibly safe. Rwanda was treating the global pandemic with the gravity and respect it deserved, and the country’s tactics were working both to curb the spread of the disease and prevent deaths.

Since the first case of novel coronavirus was reported in Rwanda in March, the country has had less than 5,000 confirmed cases, and a death toll of just 34—in a country of 12 million people.

Contrast that with Illinois, which has roughly the same population as Rwanda, and almost 10,000 deaths, and the U.S., a country of 331 million, with 8.38 million cases and nearly 225,000 deaths.

Travel brings perspective, particularly in a time of pandemic and pandemic fatigue.

When the Rwandan government lifted its travel restrictions for Americans on August 1, I decided it was time to finish CAMERA KIDS, a documentary four years in the making. The film features three young men orphaned during Rwanda’s genocide who learned photography in the orphanage where they were raised, and are now putting their skills to use for a new generation of peace and reconciliation work with the children of genocide perpetrators and survivors.

Interviewing Bizimana Jean who was orphaned during Rwanda’s genocide and now uses photography to inspire reconciliation. (Photo by Beth Murphy/GroundTruth)

Unlike the ease with which I could, say, drive from my home in Massachusetts to high-risk travel state Rhode Island next door without anyone enforcing the mandatory 14-day quarantine, getting from Boston to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, took careful research and planning to understand the COVID-19 protocols.

On advice, I smelled a lemon to get my mouth watering for the Vault Health COVID-19 saliva test I’d ordered through the mail. (It’s an FDA-approved PCR test—required by the airline and Rwandan government.)

Over Zoom, the medical rep watched me spit into a test tube and seal the UPS envelope that had come in the home kit. It was four days before my flight. (Five was the maximum Rwanda allowed.)

Travel requirements aren’t the same country-to-country, and, during check-in at Logan Airport, it was impressive to see how much airline personnel do to ensure passengers meet the mandates of the countries to which they are flying. In addition to the test results, I had to show a unique traveler number issued by the Rwandan government and proof of a reservation at a hotel offering COVID-19 testing and 24-hour quarantine upon arrival. 

On the ground in Rwanda, one of the men I was filming with asked me earnestly, “Do you like your freedom?” He’d seen stories about Americans dismissing the science around COVID-19 spread and marching through stores, refusing to wear masks.

Dr. Vanessa with a swab for the mandatory COVID-19 test after landing in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo by Beth Murphy/GroundTruth)

The question gave me pause. I do love freedom—and believe freedom is the exact reason that we are obligated to wear a mask. As Michael Tomasky wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

“Freedom emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s ‘freedom’ means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom.”

Before my flight back to the United States, I had to take another COVID-19 test and prove it was negative four times before getting on the plane. As soon as I connected to Wi-Fi, a news alert announced a grim milestone: More than one million people had died of COVID-19 globally. Within two weeks of my return to the U.S., cases are on the rise dramatically.

What travel to Rwanda made abundantly clear is that strict safety measures are possible and they work. But there were no such assurances back in Massachusetts. Though I was officially mandated to quarantine for 14 days upon my arrival home, there was no one enforcing it. For peace of mind, and because it’s the right thing to do, I took another home saliva test—my fourth test in three weeks.

Home again with my husband and daughter, enjoying precious family time, I follow the reports of rising COVID-19 cases and worry about the school kids and teachers, about my neighbors and aging mother, who don’t have access to rapid testing, who must continue to live their lives in a constant cloud of uncertainty. A vaccine, too, is still many months away, despite some grandiose political claims.

Soon, I will pack my bags and travel internationally again. I can’t help but feel that with all the stringent protocols in place, that it’s the safest place to be.

A version of this story appeared on Ms. Magazine on October 29, 2020