, 08 April, 2020 / 9:28 AM
As countries put in place measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, a Cardinal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has cautioned that the spread of the pandemic in the Central African nation would be disastrous, as the country does not have the capability of handling another outbreak, soon after struggling over the years to fight Ebola epidemic.
“We are terrified of the possible spread of COVID-19 here in Congo; we have no means or logistical solutions to deal with it and it would be a disaster," the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Fridolin Cardinal Ambongo Besungu told Agenzia Fides in an interview.
He added in the April 6 interview, “There is great fear because the number of infected people rises day by day. My diocese is the most affected, most of the cases are concentrated in the capital where 12 million people live, but we fear that it will spread to other areas of the Country as well.”
Following DRC’s fight against the world's second largest Ebola epidemic on record that broke out in the country on August 1, 2018 and killed more than 2,200 people, the country’s healthcare system is yet to recover. COVID-19 hit the country a week after the last Ebola patient was discharged.
Last week, the government of DRC put Gombe suburb in the capital Kinshasa, believed to be the epicenter of the pandemic, under a two-week lockdown starting Monday, April 6, as a means to control the spread of the virus that has claimed 18 lives in the country.
With at least 161 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the mineral-rich country has one of the highest cases of the virus in Africa. Five people have also recovered from the disease, the Public Health minister, Eteni Longondo reported.
The Minister has interpreted the 18 deaths, which represent a 9 percent death rate, as a high fatality rate and attributed it to residents in the capital city who did not take the coronavirus threat seriously until the first case was announced, the East African has reported.
Referencing the high rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths reported in some developed nations such as Italy, Spain, and the U.S, the Congolese Cardinal remarked, “We dare not imagine what it would be like here if even a small part of what happened there happened to us."
“The government has asked (us) to limit circulation, to wash your hands, to stay as much as possible at home,” the Cardinal who is a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (OFM Cap.) noted but highlighted the challenges around the directives saying, “Here, the slogan stay home in many cases would make no sense, because houses are precarious, up to about 10/15 people live in a small room and the vast majority of our population lives on the street all day.”
Furthermore, not all households have running water and in order to wash hands, people have to travel long distances, the Cardinal observed.
According to the World Bank, an estimated 73 percent of DRC citizens live in extreme poverty, thus making it hard for them to afford basic needs including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities that are key in curbing the spread of COVID-19.
In the April 6 interview, the 60-year-old Congolese Prelate disclosed that the Church is engaging the government regarding the announced measures “because we fear that the directive of staying at home will not work in most situations.”
“There is also a risk of looting in the case of mass epidemics and hospitalizations, especially by the military and policemen," the Cardinal said.
The Church leader who is also the Cardinal-Priest of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in Rome regretted that the 90 percent of Catholics in DRC will mark Easter with uncertainty because “Churches are open, but the influx of the faithful is prohibited. You can enter to pray, but one at a time or with very small groups, no more than 20 (people).”
He added, “In Kinshasa we can make use of a Catholic TV and radio and we will broadcast all the functions. The problem will be in all those dioceses where there are no such means."
The concerns of the Cardinal over the imminent disastrous situation that COVID-19 is likely to cause in the second largest country in Africa are shared by a number of medical experts in the country among them the head of the national microbiology research institute, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, and Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege, who have both expressed fears of the “worst” in the coming weeks.
Besides the lack of enough equipment, medical personnel are also threatening to down their tools. After resuming work in February, they gave a 60-day ultimatum for the government to meet their demands. The ultimatum will expire in April, when more COVID-19 infections are expected.
To mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the country, the US government has provided US$6 million worth of humanitarian funding, while the World Bank has provided US$47 million to help the Congolese government strengthen its capacity to fight COVID-19.
An official in the country has also been quoted as confirming the possibility for clinical trials of a coronavirus vaccine in the Central African nation later in the year, a declaration that has attracted furious criticism with citizens saying they are not “guinea pigs.” This followed an international uproar after two French doctors proposed Africa as the ideal testing ground of a COVID-19 vaccine.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa