How A Small African Country is Beating the United States at COVID

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Safe from COVID and ready for business!

I own a restaurant in Rwanda. COVID has not been good for restaurants, to put it lightly.

But believe it or not, my business is actually up during COVID, with last month’s sales 33% higher than in the month before the pandemic hit.

I wish small business owners in America could say the same thing. But I bet there aren’t many who can, especially in the hospitality business. And I feel for you. Believe me, I was there too.

Running a small business is hard enough in normal times. You work hard, sweat over the numbers, pay bills, pay taxes, and at the end of the day, maybe you’re left with something.

Then the pandemic hit. Rwanda went on total lockdown — the strictest in Africa. Suddenly, no customers, everything was shut. Revenues plunged 70% overnight as we were reduced to delivery and carry-out — but we still had to pay our bills. I loaned my own cash to the business to keep it afloat and avoid layoffs, without knowing how long the bleeding would continue. With each passing week, the losses piled up as the lockdown dragged on — and unlike US businesses, we received no financial assistance from the government. I wasn’t sure if we’d survive.

But within weeks, cases started falling. Soon they were in the low single digits. My hopes started rising. Finally in May, after 7 painful weeks, the lockdown ended. Customers could return.

Six months later, things are pretty much back to normal in Rwanda. Restaurants are full. People are seeing friends. Even casinos are opening again soon. The few isolated outbreaks over the past six months have been quickly contained with 2-week targeted mini-lockdowns that controlled the virus in those communities, while allowing the rest of the country go on with business. PPE production ramped up in a matter of weeks; today you can buy a mask in the smallest shop in the smallest Rwandan village. I’d written about this before back in May, and things have only improved since then: the initial lockdown was the best support the government could have given my business.

Yes, there’s still a 10pm curfew, and nightclubs are still shut. Yes, there are still very few tourists. Everyone is wearing masks, including my staff. But overall, most businesses are back, and normal life has basically returned.

And all this with only 35 deaths to date: a rate 1/238 that of the US relative to population — despite having fewer than 50 ventilators in the whole country. (And unlike many other countries in Africa, you can generally trust Rwanda’s stats). Considering that Rwanda’s GDP per capita is 1/83 that of the US, Rwanda is doing roughly 19,754x better than the US at fighting COVID, per unit of economic output.

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Social distancing signs on display at the restaurant
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Reduced seating is better than none

Simply put, the US is getting its ass kicked on COVID by much more disadvantaged countries like Rwanda.

It’s not just COVID — it’s the economy too. While my restaurant in Rwanda is seeing record numbers, restaurant occupancy in the United States is still down 41%, according to data from Open Table. Yes, I’m just one example, and restaurants are just one industry, but the story is telling nonetheless. Do any restaurant owners or workers in the US think our economy is doing great? If not, we’d better get this virus under control so customers can come back.

To see what Rwanda’s doing, just look at their policy toward travel. Today you can still fly to Rwanda, you just need to get tested twice: once before boarding the plane (quite comforting knowing that everyone on the flight will have tested negative), and once on arrival. You then spend one night in a hotel while you wait for your results. When the results come back negative, you’re free to go, so you can go see the gorillas, lions, or anything else.

That’s it: two tests and a night in a hotel.

Is it a slight inconvenience? Sure. Do I like getting a swab down my throat? Of course not. But is it worth it to make people feel safe to travel and get the tourism industry going? Most definitely. It’s not a lockdown. It’s not trampling on your freedom. It’s just common sense.

Why can’t we have that in America?

Yes, it’s true that Rwanda has some natural advantages: a warm climate, a young population, a mostly rural geography, and fewer international travelers bringing the virus. But Rwanda has disadvantages as well. In addition to having few economic and health care resources, social distancing is impossible for most people: most families live in small, crowded homes with multiple family members, few people can work remote, and most workers take public transportation to work each day. Despite all this, Rwanda’s efforts are paying off.

We’re told that the US did everything it could fighting the virus. But if that were true, why are poor countries like Rwanda outclassing us so badly? Surely if Rwanda can do it, so can the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world.

We’re told that the virus came from China, and no one could have seen this coming. But there’s only one country that couldn’t see it coming: China. So how are they managing to throw pool parties in Wuhan, grow their economy in 2020 (while we’re still in a 3.5% hole), and record 20-something cases per day? The virus surprised China and they still got it under control; we had a month’s warning. And still, China has not yet cracked 100,000 cases CUMULATIVELY; the US just recorded 101,461 cases in ONE DAY, on Oct. 30.

The virus came from China, but they’re laughing now
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Flattening the curve: cumulative coronavirus cases in China have yet to break the 100,000 mark (Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/china/)

We’re told that we must reopen the economy as quickly as possible, that the choice is between returning to work or complete lockdown. But my experience shows that isn’t true. Yes, the lockdown was painful. It cost me a lot of money in the short term. But it was only seven weeks. Given where we are now, that pain was completely worth it.

Moreover, since those seven weeks ended, more nationwide lockdowns have NOT been needed. The initial lockdown not only bought the country time to ramp up test-and-trace, it squashed the virus to a level from which it could be controlled by much more relaxed measures. For American politicians to equate common sense measures like masks and social distancing with complete lockdowns is just false: there’s a happy medium that spares both lives and the economy.

Other countries are finding that happy medium — and they are beating us, getting back to normal. Taiwan, with a population the size of Florida, celebrated its 200th consecutive day without a locally-transmitted case. Meanwhile, Florida reported more than 4,000 cases yesterday alone. New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan are also back to some kind of normal. Why can’t we be back to normal too?

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600 cases: 9 months in Taiwan, 9 hours in Florida

It’s of course true that the US is not the only country that is struggling — just look at Europe. But Europe at least managed a few months of somewhat normal life during the summer before the second wave hit. In America, we’re either on our third wave, or still riding one big first wave that just keeps getting bigger. And there’s no end in sight.

Trump certainly can’t be blamed for 100% of COVID. He didn’t do nothing: he did, after all, ban travel from China when that was still an unpopular idea, and deserves credit for that. But he didn’t do much else either. Worse, he’s taken positive delight in minimizing the threat and flouting the rules: going for a ride with the Secret Service while still infected with COVID, ripping off his mask, and holding rallies that have been linked to more than 700 deaths. Even if we get a vaccine — which would be a huge success — how many lives could have been saved while it was being developed if the President had just told the country to wear masks?

We could have done better. While counterfactuals are impossible to prove, it’s highly likely that if the US had followed Rwanda’s example, we would have not only contained the virus and saved more than 100,000 lives, but our economy would also be stronger today.

With strong leadership, we would have implemented a short, swift, 6-week nationwide lockdown in March, paired with massive economic assistance to businesses to keep them afloat through that period. We would have used the time to ramp up testing and contact tracing as preparation to reopen safely (yes, our testing has improved, but we have lagged other nations in contact tracing). With everyone staying home, the virus would have plummeted to manageable levels, just like it did elsewhere. We would have then reopened slowly in May, using test-and-trace to identify and quickly contain isolated outbreaks while allowing the rest of the country to go on with business. Things wouldn’t quite be normal, but they’d certainly not be where they are now. (The President would probably be doing better in the polls as well if he’d done this.)

Instead, the president’s son-in-law proudly proclaimed in April that we’re “getting the country back from the doctors… Trump’s now back in charge. It’s not the doctors.” Scientists were ignored, mask orders were overturned, and 230,000 Americans are now dead. And all without sparing the economy: even after 33% quarterly growth in the third quarter, we’re still negative for the year, and unemployment is still higher than when Obama left office (7.9% vs. 4.7%).

And winter is coming.

We’re the United States of America: the richest, most powerful country in history. We could have done so much better. Instead, we’re losing. And we’re not only losing to rich countries like China and Japan. We’re losing to countries with 1/83 of our resources that the President once called “s***holes”. Donald Trump’s COVID response isn’t just a tragedy, it’s a national humiliation. The world isn’t laughing at us anymore: they’re crying for us.

We can still do better. The choice is not a black and white one between total reopening and total lockdown: it’s about practical, common sense measures — proven to work in other countries — that will save lives while still allowing economic growth.

But we need new leadership. And on November 3, we’ll get that chance.

Written by

Born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, working on solar energy and rural electrification in Africa, BA in Social Studies from Harvard

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