Rwanda has stepped up restrictions on movement across its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, and intensified screening to forestall the spread of Ebola.
But the restrictions have had a toll on cross-border trade, which thrived following the mending of bilateral ties by the Felix Tshisekedi and Paul Kagame administrations earlier this year.
Minister of State for East African Community Affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe said that crossing the border is now reviewed on a “case-by-case basis” and that one must have a “serious” reason for travelling.”
“We are working closely with the DRC officials on this and it will be the case until the situation is clear,” he said.
The restrictions were imposed at the beginning of August, shortly after the World Heath Organisation reported the third Ebola-related death in Goma City, which is only about eight kilometres from the border with Rwanda.
The restrictions mean that a huge number of border residents, who routinely cross over to Goma to buy foodstuffs can no longer do so.
Those seeking casual labour, visiting relatives or attending religious gatherings also face the same dilemma. But traders are still free to cross the border to sell their products (mainly foodstuffs).
The scare of Ebola now threatens to undermine President Kagame's vision of stronger informal trade with DRC, Rwanda’s largest trading partner in Africa.
DRC sells Rwanda mainly minerals and foodstuffs, while Kigali sells Kinshasa live animals, food crops and re-exports.
DRC is also Rwanda’s largest export destination, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Pakistan and Singapore.
In 2018, total exports to DRC were valued at $456.8 million while imports were a mere $11.2 million. Informal exports to DRC were worth $109 million while imports were just $2 million.
In the first quarter of this year, DRC took in $15 million worth of Rwanda’s domestic exports. During the same period, Uganda attracted $5 million worth of Rwandan exports, while the entire East African region took in $23.4 million worth.
President Felix Tshisekedi visited Rwanda in May, ending years of tension between the two countries that occasionally resulted in armed clashes. Ebola has now applied the brakes on that progress, with trade slowing down.
Many residents in the Gisenyi border community have had to change their lifestyles and are keen to follow regular sensitisations by the Ministry of Health and local leaders on how to prevent the spread of Ebola.
A number of them no longer shake hands or hug as was the custom, and washing of hands is now mandatory at every restaurant, as it is for everyone entering Rwanda from the DRC.
“I did not have to wait for the government to restrict border movement. I simply stopped, because life is more precious than whatever I would be crossing over for. Of course, my stock is now small but I have no option but to wait,” Sifa Murengera, a cross-border fruit seller said.
Others such as Aimable Mushimiyimana, a forex trader at the Grande Barrier border post said they understand the risk involved but cannot stop trading because of family pressures.
The EastAfrican found a few people at the border post—mostly women—who had been denied crossing. They said immigration officers told them to “buy from Rwanda what they wanted to buy in Goma.”
Border officials said that while Rwanda had always put measures in place every time Ebola was reported in the DRC, the current epidemic was too close to warrant extensive restrictions on border movement.
Rwandan schoolchildren who study in Goma are on holiday – but their parents and guardians are worried about sending them back to the DRC in September when schools re-open.
Health ministers from both countries met early this month and agreed on strategies to combat the spread of Ebola.
Rwanda has a detailed National Preparedness Plan in place, which was hailed by WHO as a proactive model in Ebola preparedness since the outbreak was declared almost one year ago in the DRC.
WHO however warns that “as long as the outbreak continues in the DRC, there is a risk of spreading to neighbouring countries.”
Rwanda said it plans to buy doses of a new Ebola vaccine which WHO said is 97 per cent effective in preventing death among people with the virus as long as it is used early.
The vaccine, according to the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, will target mainly health workers and traders near the border with the DRC.
A new case of Ebola was reported on Tuesday in Pinga village, a remote, militia-controlled area about 152km from Goma.
DRC is grappling with the world’s second-largest Ebola epidemic recorded by WHO, which has killed more than 1,930 people out of the over 2,880 cases reported since the outbreak was declared on August 1, 2018. There are 868 Ebola survivors and patients still under care, WHO says.