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Kongo: Corona will be worse than Ebola

News from 2020-05-08

Since 10 March, the coronavirus has also reached the Democratic Republic of Kongo. The capital Kinshasa is particularly affected. Verena Seiler, director of the KfW office in Kinshasa, describes how corona is being dealt with in the midst of the Ebola epidemic.

Over 800 people were infected and more than 30 people died in the last few weeks as a result of Covid-19. The capital Kinshasa is the worst affected, but individual cases have also been reported in other provinces. As in most African countries, the test capacity is very low, which is why the number of unreported cases is probably much higher. At present, about 300 tests are carried out per day. So far, the numbers are still quite low compared to other countries, but the development remains uncertain - the mere fact that testing has taken place in the capital's prison in the last few days has led to a larger increase in the numbers. Reliable data on the state of the health system are not available. It is estimated that about 300 intensive care beds are available - the government is now trying to increase this capacity with the help of international donors.

Initially, a lockdown was to be imposed on the entire capital of Kinshasa. However, it soon became clear that this was not feasible. A large part of the population depends on being able to earn a living every day and thus ensure the survival of the family. Since most people live in extreme poverty, they do not have any major reserves. Therefore, there were fears that a curfew with people being forced to stay at home could lead to serious insecurity problems.

Viele Menschen, die vor einen Brunnen stehen, um Wasser zu holen.
Especially in times of Corona and Ebola the supply of clean drinking water is indispensable.

So on 5 April, a lockdown was imposed only on Kinshasa's Gombe business district, which is also the area most affected by Corona. This is where the affluent population lives, and where embassies, shops and offices are located. The city centre was also sealed off and since then can only be entered with a permit. In the other districts, public life is at least restricted, as many try to leave their homes only for necessary purchases. Schools and churches are still closed. The partial lockdown and additional restrictions on the movement of goods and people have already caused the local economy to collapse. The DR Congo is also heavily dependent on the global economy for raw material exports. Fears that malnutrition and undernourishment will soon be on the rise are wide-spread in a country which, even before the Corona pandemic, has been home to over 4.5 million internally displaced persons, with more than one million children under the age of five suffering from malnutrition.

For the KfW office, too, the measures taken against corona mean a change. "My family and I left for Germany in mid-March," says office director Verena Seiler. "The decision was not an easy one, our work and life are on the spot and we did not want to leave people alone in such a situation. At the same time, with two small children, we could not make any other decision due to the closed borders and the fragile healthcare system". All local staff are in the home office and work from there. Communication works well and appointments with partners can also be made virtually - although some authorities and ministries are much more difficult to reach. Asked about the biggest challenges in their everyday life with corona, office employees Georges Ngindu and Claver Hambadiahana talk about the problems caused by the regular power and water outages and the high price increases on the local market due to transport and import restrictions in the country. And in the Congo, too, it is difficult to reconcile childcare, school and home office. Just as in Germany, people are missing direct exchange with their colleagues in the office. On the other hand, the fact that virtual communication is going so well, and with so many partners, is a positive experience.

Buntes Markttreiben im Kongo
Dense crowds as it usually is on a market in Mudaka in the east of the country.

The government is trying to calm the situation with appropriate measures and has announced, among other things, that electricity and water supply will be free for the next two months. On behalf of the German federal government, KfW Development Bank is also helping to support the people in their difficult everyday lives, for example by financing urgently needed but scarce operating resources such as chlorine. This will at least enable the water supply to be maintained over the next few weeks, not only in Kinshasa but also in 19 other medium-sized cities and towns. Among the measures still in preparation there is aid for small and medium-sized enterprises and additional funds for food security.

But Corona is not the only pandemic that is affecting the country. Since 2018, eastern Congo has suffered the world's second-largest outbreak of Ebola - and since 2019 it has also been fighting the world's largest measles wave, which has so far claimed over 6,000 lives. In early March, there was hope that the Ebola outbreak could be over after the last patient was discharged as cured and no new infection was reported. However, this changed shortly before the presumed end of Ebola could be announced: The number of patients has now risen to seven after a new infection. A major problem in the affected region is that the medical teams are often met with distrust and access is made difficult by the precarious security situation. Nevertheless, Ebola and measles are fading into the background in view of the new challenges posed by Corona. And unfortunately it is also to be feared that Corona could affect the country much more than Ebola. Although, as our colleague Franck Madimba from the KfW Kinshasa office hopes, the crisis may raise awareness of how important functioning health systems are and how dangerous any shortages in this area can become for the entire economy. So that policy makers can set the right course for the future.