Coronavirus in Congo

Above a Commercial center Kinshasa on the 25th of March. Most non-food shops were closed and circulation was cut back.  This corner would normally have 3x this much activity.

Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of Intensive Care at a Paris hospital, overwhelmed by the French Coronavirus crisis, suggested that a possible new Covid-19 vaccine be tested in Africa.

–to paraphrase: Africans don’t have masks and they have no intensive care..  it would be like when prostitutes were used to test treatments for AIDS….they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves….

The head of the Covid-19 task force in D.R.Congo Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, a virologist who himself contracted Ebola and recovered and who was able to bring D.R. Congo’s recent Ebola epidemic under control by using still-experimental vaccines, was unperturbed.

To paraphrase Dr Muyembe: DR Congo could be ready to test vaccines by May…”

Above Dr. Muyembe Tanfum coordinator of the Covid-19-response task-force in D.R. Congo.

The media reaction in D.R. Congo was vicious,

To paraphrase the journals:  Dr Muyembe wants us to be guinea pigs…

The international press also castigated Dr Mira and his colleagues for being insensitive.  French medicine has a very partial understanding of the situation in Congo.  I am now in Kindu and John is in Opala, both towns in D.R. Congo. We chose not to return to the USA although the embassy in Kinshasa is organizing an emergency flight for desperate, stranded Americans.  We are not desperate.

Above the 27th March, in front of our Kinshasa office the day before a proposed city-wide “shelter-in-place”.  Because of the hardship it would cause many and the difficulty of fair enforcement, the shut-down was delayed.  It is now in effect but only for the two communes with the highest prevalence of coronavirus. 

Where Dr Mira is correct is that facilities in the Congo are very far from western standards.  The medical personnel are incredibly underpaid and underequipped.  When John had a hernia operation in Kinshasa last year, he was still semi-conscious in recovery when I complained that the rain was coming through the roof and through the ceiling onto his bed. The nurses had to balance him to another bed.  During the night we heard rats overhead.  But the operation, itself, was faultless and his wound was well-tended with correct anti-septic procedure.

What Dr Mira missed was the adaptiveness and resourcefulness of this administration and its people.  He also missed the fact that every person in this population feels his/her vulnerability to Covid-19 as well as many other invisible killers.  They felt this before Wuhan happened.

The first case known in the USA was in January.  Now in April, the president of the United States still has not nationalized strong protective measures for all American citizens to follow.

The first case known in DR Congo was discovered 8 March, by 10 March a national state of emergency was announced and all commercial international passenger flights shut out of Congo.  A week later all internal passenger flights were stopped.   Schools, churches, and bars ceased to function.  In Kinshasa non-essential businesses were closed.

Tshisikedi, the Congolese president, has been struggling with multiple political factions ever since his election more than a year ago, but all opposition parties and traditional leaders openly support his anti-Covid mobilization. 

The provinces followed the national lead closing ferries and roads between major cities.  There are no known cases in the town of Kindu where I now am, but for the past two weeks there has been no school, no church, no bars.

Will that put the cap on Covid-19 spread?  Probably not, but the published numbers are provocative:

It is curious that Kinshasa, a teeming third world metropolis, with more residents than New York City, mainly living hand to mouth, did not quickly spiral into crisis. 

Our top project leaders here in Kindu tried to understand the phenomenon….all of us sitting two meters apart with clean hands….

Was it because Congo is tropical and the weather always warm?  Perhaps, but southeast Asia is not doing as well.

Is it because this is such a young population?  Most days I see only people at least a generation younger than myself.

Is it because early symptoms resemble malaria? People can assume malaria and self-treat (usually not with Chloroquine) and the symptoms generally go away.

Is it lack of air pollution?  Even in Kinshasa there is little industrial pollution, but car exhaust is uncontrolled.

Could it be the BCG vaccine given to all children here?  That is an interesting possibility.

Or are the figures a massive under-estimate of the numbers.  After all in the whole of Congo there is only one testing center. Only the very sick are tested (but that too was the case in the USA not long ago).

Tomorrow, 10thApril, I leave going further into the hinterland on a motorcycle to visit base camps—off internet.  John is already off line.  I will be back in ten days.  Possibly I will find that Kinshasa cases are exploding.   Perhaps the incidence curve will spike.

We will report back …  and hopefully, in the meantime, there will be much more international help for this country that is doing all that is possible to flatten its curve.   Perhaps the Congolese and all of us will soon be competing for the same experimental vaccines.

Above: Coming into port in Ubundu. Food and people continue to move by dugout and barge up Congo’s many rivers. Unlike Ebola that was spread through contact with bodily fluids, Covid-19 scatters through the air and lingers on surfaces. It is on the move in Congo as elsewhere.


  1. Posted 2020-04-08 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the report. Hoping DRC is spared the worst and that you, John and the TL2 team stay healthy!

  2. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2020-04-10 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I felt that the response to COVID-19 in Cote d’Ivoire was prompt, considering what has gone on in the US. This outbreak has also obscured news that 7 weeks have passed since new Ebola cases have been reported in DRC. Thank you for the update.

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