Today Rwanda’s Ministry of Health announced that the National Vaccination Program for COVID-19 has begun. This is excellent news as it has been less than a year since the first case of COVID-19 appeared in this country. The roll-out of vaccinations inRwanda is made possible largely because of the visionary leadership of Rwanda’sPresident, His Excellency Paul Kagame.
President Kagame came to power following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda—one of the darkest moments in the country’s history. Nearly a million people died and almost everyone lost a loved one. After the genocide,His Excellency created a bold vision for Rwanda: To become a unified, stable, and prosperous country. This vision required sacrifice, difficult decisions, and actions to restore trust and reconcile the shattered country. While there have been other challenges since these difficult early days, the COVID-19 pandemic—and its impact inRwanda—marks a critical point in Rwanda’s trajectory.
Like in early years, President Kagame has approached the COVID-19 pandemic with a clear vision. When the first case of COVID-19 appeared in Rwanda, he ordered a nearly full-lockdown of the country, including school closures and suspension of travel in and out ofRwanda. This was a bold decision with some risk attached to it. People suffered because they could not meet their daily needs. International and regional business and trade (critical for a small, landlocked country) stalled. Parents across the country, myself included, struggled to figure out how to keep their children engaged in learning. Without a doubt, the economic impacts have been significant and the approach was not without its critics.
But as a health practitioner operating in Rwanda, I’m confident to say that this early and decisive action has created positive impact. It kept case numbers low and allowed the health system not to be overwhelmed. It also allowed for planning and mobilizing a system that is now closely monitoring infection rates and readying itself for a country-wide vaccination roll out. And the approach worked, in part, because of the way President Kagame had approached post-genocide recovery: By focusing on unity and the collective. In other words, people making individual sacrifices to help one another.
The Ministry of Health is reporting that the first batch of vaccines (intended for frontline healthcare staff) were acquired through international partnerships. This is an area where President Kagame has excelled and his visionary leadership is evident. His Excellency has built relationships with many countries and leaders around the world. These relationships, combined with his track record for results and accountability, has built Rwanda’s credibility in the international community and allowed him to tap the power of this network. It is no surprise that this is one of the first countries inAfrica to acquire vaccines from international partners.
Other vaccines will come throughCOVAX, a program that President Kagame has championed and publicly called on other leaders (especially those in rich and powerful nations) to respect. As he recently argued in an OpEd in the Guardian, a collective approach to vaccine distribution is essential to the whole world’s health. His call was energizing and empowering (though it probably ruffled some feathers) and I hope it will contribute to more equity in vaccine distribution.
We have a lot to learn from HisExcellency Paul Kagame. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, he has shown how setting a clear vision underpinned by strong values to address one set of challenges can actually lay the foundation to more easily tackle other challenges. He has also shown how taking bold action and decisions can be unpopular and difficult in the short-term but can have a positive outcome in the long-run. And he has shown how building relationships, while maintaining and promoting integrity, will contribute to results. A year into this terrible global health crisis, I am hopeful that inRwanda there is an end in sight—and that this end is due in part to the visionary leadership of His Excellency President Paul Kagame.