DR CONGO and COVID-19
This article is written by Peace Corps Friends of DR Board member Beth Duff-Brown, a veteran journalist and communications manager for Stanford Health Policy. Beth visited DR Congo last year. You can read her series of articles/blog posts in Return to Kamponde.
It does my heart good to see that DR Congo has, knock wood, so far managed to avoid the worst of it. This is a great daily tracker that my friend James shared with me. Those of you who have followed my Peace Corps saga know that he’s the American half of the great Jim-and-James team who helped me with my trip last September. James gives me updates from Kananga every now and then and as of today, there are no cases in the Kasai Central province. In my WhatsApp chat with Jim today, he said, "With the coronavirus and George Floyd manifestations, for once, we are the ones worried about you guys!" When COVID-19 became a pandemic, I was so worried the DRC, what with its terrible infrastructure and lack of healthcare facilities, would be devastated. But as of today, there are just over 4,000 cases nationwide — though more than 90% are in Kinshasa — with only 600 people hospitalized and 106 reported deaths. Of course, the numbers are much higher, as they are in this country, but it could have been so much worse by now. I joined a Zoom call on June 6 with some wonderful neighbors whose Presbyterian Church group established the Congo Mission Network, and they work tirelessly to raise awareness about issues in the DRC and money to build schools there. Jeff and Cristi Boyd, liaison of the Presbyterian Mission in Congo, joined us from Kinshasa. They said the pandemic has mostly skirted the DRC. “We can really only guess, but we have been closely monitoring things for three months now and the statistics have been quite consistent,” Christi said. “The epicenter of the pandemic in Congo is here in Kinshasa, where there are 12 million people who are constantly on the move, so you never really know.” Jeff helped me with my shambolic Foldscope project when I was in Kinshasa last fall and is still helping the Stanford professor who developed the $1 paper microscope. He said the level of testing is quite low in Congo like in the States, so the true number of cases is likely higher. “But we’re not hearing reports about the inundation of hospitals — so that’s a hopeful sign that the numbers are realistic, in the sense that the health system is not being overwhelmed.”
I asked the Boyds about reports that healthcare workers in Kinshasa were being physically attacked by those who don’t believe the virus is real. This June 2 AFP story quotes a man, Hussein: “Here in the Congo, all there is is malaria and ordinary fever. Corona is in Europe, in China. We have antibodies, from the time of our ancestors.”
Christi said this denial stems from people struggling daily to feed their families while they see aid workers driving around in their big cars telling them what to do. “There has been some suspicion that some of this (the pandemic) has been created so that other will get money,” he said. So there are some heightened sensitivities.”
The Boyds are also optimistic that despite reports that efforts to combat coronavirus will undermine the response to latest Ebola outbreak in the western city of Mbandaka, the Congolese health ministry has become expert at confronting the rare but deadly virus. It’s the country’s 11th cycle of Ebola since 1976.
“I want to credit the Congolese government,” Christi said. “While they’re supported by the international organizations, they are on top of things too.”
That’s not to say it won't get much worse if COVID0-19 escapes inland. And the pandemic is having a negative impactin other ways. Some funding for childhood vaccines is being diverted for coronavirus prep and some parents are afraid to visit clinics with their infants for fear of infection. UNICEF reports that vaccination rates since the beginning of the year have declined by 8 to 10 percent, which could leave children at increased risk of contracting other diseases such as polio, measles and yellow fever, later in life.
A Congolese friend sent me this video of how they're staying as safe as they can. It makes me smile — and count my blessings — every time I watch.
Note from Peace Corps Friends of DR Congo Board: Beth has written in her personal blog an expanded post on Coronavirus in the Congo that provides the United States struggle with the pandemic in context.