The coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the importance of collaboration between scientists, researchers, and policymakers. Rwanda, which cited its first COVID-19 case in mid-March 2020, has been recognized internationally by researchers and policymakers for its impressive and swift COVID-19 response. CEGA Communications Intern Yevanit Reschechtko sat down with two Rwandan EASST Fellows to hear their insights on Rwanda’s response to the pandemic.
Jeanine Condo is a Medical Doctor and Professor of Public Health at the University of Rwanda, as well as Managing Director and owner of the Center for Impact Innovation and Capacity building for Health Information and Nutrition (CIIC-HIN). She previously served as the Director General of the Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) and was an EASST Fellow in 2013. Her recent book chapter, “Rwanda and Covid-19: Leadership and resilient health system” outlines the Rwandan government’s mitigation strategies for successfully managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aimable Nsabimana is a researcher and Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Rwanda, where he focuses on impact evaluation, microeconomics, agriculture and education. While he was unable to complete his EASST Fellowship in-person in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, he hopes to travel to Berkeley during the 2021–22 academic year to collaborate with CEGA researchers on a project analyzing COVID-19’s impact on educational outcomes for Rwandan students.
Yevanit: When were you involved with the EASST Fellowship and what impact has it had on your career so far?
Jeanine: Coming from an epidemiological background rather than an economics background, I learned a lot from EASST about the importance of impact evaluation — not only in designing studies but also in helping policymakers to make the right decisions. It helped me shape my thinking around program evaluation and impacts in my daily activities by thinking through the process and theory of change of what is happening, and by always considering how to link those impacts with policy decisions.
Yevanit: How have you seen research inform policy in Rwanda? Has anything changed in this regard with the COVID-19 response?
Jeanine: One example prior to COVID-19 is malaria prevention, which is an issue where running an evaluation is difficult. It’s hard to prevent some people from getting the intervention and not others. So something that we quickly learned at RBC was to use existing data. In Rwanda this data is key for all the decision-making processes — from thinking, designing, and framing to implementation and evaluation. We were able to use longitudinal and aggregated data to make decisions and better understand who was at risk and which populations we needed to focus on. This strategy helped us to prepare when COVID-19 started in 2020.
Aimable: I also think that there has been some cultural change in this area after COVID-19. Before COVID-19, some policymakers might have made decisions without considering the evidence. But COVID-19 has made it clear to policymakers that they need to consider science and existing evidence. And I think this change will expand to other areas like education and economics and to other policymakers worldwide.
Yevanit: Rwanda has been especially successful in tracking cases and keeping them in check. What do you think that success can be contributed to?
Jeanine: Rwanda is a spectacular case where the top leaders from the highest level of the government work together with all government institutions and the private sector to use data to inform policy. For example, during the initial lockdown, they used data to answer questions like, “Can we expect the lockdown to be national or located at sectoral level or district level?” and “Should we close schools or not?” Scientists presented to government leaders at all levels: evaluating the economic impact, looking to international partners like the CDC and WHO, and local academics to use all the information available to create evidence-based policies. Scientists are being meticulous to ensure that there’s no one left behind, not just in terms of contact tracing, but also in disease management and follow up, to make sure people who do get sick can be rehabilitated back to the community.
Yevanit: What broader economic and societal impacts has COVID-19 had in Rwanda?
Aimable: COVID-19 has had a big impact on education. They canceled an entire year of school during the lockdown and this has huge implications, especially for primary schools. We usually have around 500,000 new students entering first grade each year, but since they canceled one year of school, next year there will be a million new students. The government has initiated a school construction project with the World Bank, but the question remains as to whether the schools will be able to accommodate a double class in primary school. And of course, in six years, what happens when that class enters secondary school?
Another question I’ve been looking at is the effect of mobile money on the economy because after COVID-19, people are adopting mobile payment systems over cash. And government spending has also been changing over the last three or four years, where now most government services are paid online. So we are evaluating how this is going to affect employment in the long run, and the prediction is that half of the employees in new commercial banks are going to lose their jobs. But at the same time, there may be positive effects on resource management and efficiency.
Yevanit: How can the EASST Fellowship help you to get policymakers to take that research seriously and incorporate it into policy decisions?
Aimable: I think that the world is becoming more unpredictable, so having strong tools for impact evaluation and understanding how to incorporate those into policy is something that policymakers are looking for now. My research project is to analyze the impact of COVID-19 on test scores in Rwanda and that has important implications for the Ministry of Education and Rwanda’s educational policy going forward. EASST can not only help me to make the most of that research, but also to build a network of other professionals and researchers so that when I get back to Rwanda, we can increase our impact in the long run for our country and for the whole region.