SEATTLE, Washington — Rwanda boasts a strong public health system, in no small part due to strides the country made during the tenure of Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, the former minister of health. Rwanda’s public health infrastructure enabled it to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic incredibly well.
Dr. Binagwaho’s Leadership in Rwanda’s Public Health
Dr. Binagwaho became the permanent secretary of the Rwandan Ministry of Health in 2008 and served as its minister from 2011 to 2016. In part due to Dr. Binagwaho’s leadership, Rwanda made many significant strides in public health.
- Maternal mortality: Maternal mortality declined by more than 60% between the years 1990 and 2010.
- Life expectancy: In 1994, life expectancy in Rwanda was 28 years. By 2012, it had risen to 56 years.
- HIV cases: The number of HIV deaths dropped by 44% in six years (from 15,000 to 7,700); also, new HIV infections declined by 50%. The Ministry improved HIV care by linking public, private and community healthcare sectors.
- HPV vaccination: Through teaming up with the pharmaceutical company Merck, which produced the HPV vaccine, 93% of eligible girls in the country received the HPV vaccine.
- Community health initiatives: The Ministry of Health trained 45,000 community health workers to reach people living in poverty who often did not have access to healthcare. These workers utilize mobile technology and are able to access doctors via Twitter, with support from the Ministry.
- Health insurance and access to healthcare: Health insurance reaches 90% of the population, and the poorest receive healthcare at no cost.
In Rwanda, public health and economic growth are closely linked. As Dr. Binagwaho stated: “Health is key in development. It increases the GDP of the country. We seem just to spend money, but it’s not true. Health equity is a business plan.” Economic gain and healthcare seem to be mutually beneficial in Rwanda. Despite being one of the world’s poorest countries, its economy is growing rapidly and its public health services are stronger than ever.
Public Health and COVID-19 in Rwanda
Rwanda’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an example of its public health system in action. The country took early action to trace, isolate and test potential COVID-19 patients. Within a week of confirming the first cases, Rwanda stopped commercial flights and implemented one of the strictest lockdown schemes in Africa. It closed all but essential businesses and prohibited travel between provinces.
More than 20,000 people in Rwanda took COVID-19 tests before May; there was a smaller testing gap than the United States. By late April, Rwandan officials also completed random community surveys that indicated that there was no community transmission of COVID-19. This meant that the country was successfully containing the outbreak and knew about all cases.
Rwanda began easing its lockdown on May 4, allowing businesses like restaurants and hotels to open in a limited fashion. However, movement between provinces was still not allowed. Schools will reopen in September and officials are encouraging people to wear masks and to practice social distancing. Rwanda reported only 243 confirmed COVID-19 cases and zero deaths at the beginning of May. These measures display the strength of Rwanda’s public health infrastructure to withstand the current pandemic.
In recent years, Rwanda’s public health infrastructure has become increasingly robust. Built upon a strong foundation, the country responded to the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly and effectively. Public health and COVID-19 in Rwanda is truly a success story.
– Isabelle Breier
Photo: Wikimedia Commons