View from Congo : Covid-19 and Violence

Above map shows the rate of geographic spread of Covid-19 in Congo

Covid-19 confinement in the USA was to open cautiously –

but unjustified police brutality, resulting in death of yet another black man, was the rupture through which mass protests poured through city streets of USA.  Violence broke out and escalated in the urban nights. 

As a result, will there be another upsurge in USA covid-19 cases –
remaining mainly urban, disproportionately black?

In Congo there is violence, too; here it started well before confinement-
but it was not city violence as in the States, it was rural violence.

It was not protest violence –

It was gang violence, maimai violence to establish dominance by remote, self-defined elites.
This violence, in the buffer zone of Lomami national park, is psychopathic, superstitious:

A woman was accused by one maimai lord of being a “witch” able to reveal where there were diamonds.  She said she had no such knowledge.  She was stripped and whipped.  She had the strength to continue to cry out that she was falsely accused, she was not a sorcerer. She was buried alive.  All this is captured on telephone video.  Like the brutality against George Floyd, the brutality against Honorine was documented.    Here the criminal was Bernard and his band.

These maimai have beheaded, eviscerated and destroyed whole villages on both sides of the park.  One maimai leader, Fidele was caught, not by military or park guards, but by the villagers themselves.

Congo’s violence has a different social origin and will come to a different social end than the violence in the USA, hopefully both ends will come with fundamental social change.

The virus, Covid-19, too has a different social “position” here.  It is one of several virus killers all on-going. Note: the 11th Congolese ebola epidemic just broke out this week. 

Here, too Covid-19, is a killer and it is on the increase, though more slowly – so far – than in the more powerful, economically dominant countries.

Rate of increase in cases and deaths…on June 2nd there are 72 deaths known to have occured of Covid-19 in DR Congo.

We have not seen the end of Covid-19 here or in the USA.

We cannot be sure where the violence will lead in Congo or the USA, or how history will be written, or what lessons will be learned.  But we will continue to give an occasional view from central DR Congo.

Virus Compatriots of Covid-19 in Congo

Ebola virus: an electron micrograph of an ebolavirus virion

I came back from the Lomami National Park a week ago and, checking the news, found Covid-19 spreading in Kinshasa, but it has not exploded.  Here’s the situation.

And there is still no sign of covid-19 in Kindu where I am now.  When John returned to Kisangani from the northern Lomami NP he reported the same: no sign.  We asked in medical centers in Kindu and Kisangani…no coronavirus patients, although the medical staff are very attentive for symptoms. 

John took pictures of the casket-maker’s wares lined up along the side of the road for sale:  That business has not yet picked up in Kisangani.   John has his eyes on the “green and yellow casket” which he thinks will be the first to go.

John is watching for changes in the speed of turnover of Kisangani casket-vendors’ wares.

We of course wonder if this moderate pace will continue long-term, then maybe dwindle, OR if the incidence graph is about to jump into a sharp incline and the virus jump, too, from city to city.

For clues we looked at how other virus epidemics were doing in DR Congo, and were shocked at how complacent we have been.

For all three viruses, rapid propagation and virulence assure tragedy.   Containment of the scale of tragedy is a struggle with poverty, poor infrastructure, and failed health systems.

EBOLA: The current epidemic is Congo’s 10th Ebola outbreak and started in August 2018.  The virus was first identified in DR Congo near the Ebola river in the northeast in 1976.  Even now, with better protocols for treating patients, the current epidemic has a mortality rate of 66%.  Whole families and neighborhoods are lost.  New vaccines, while still experimental, were and are what allow the current epidemic to remain contained (part of eastern DR Congo only). Finally, we believe, the vaccines may soon allow an end to the epidemic.

The Kindu bushmeat market at Makengele on 27 March 2020. A bustling place.

Like Covid-19, Ebola is animal vectored. In the case of Ebola probably jumping to humans through hunting and preparation of bushmeat.

Unlike Covid-19, the human to human contagion is through contact with body fluids – blood, vomit – or clothes and surfaces contaminated by the fluids.  It spares no-one and kills more than half of those affected.

Hand washing bucket set-up to prevent Covid-19, here at the Makengele bushmeat market, and at essentially all public places.

MEASLES : The current epidemic in Congo is newer than the Ebola outbreak starting early in 2019, but it is the most devastating, fastest moving measles epidemic currently in the world. 

Like Covid-19 it spreads through the air, it is now in all 26 provinces of DR Congo mowing down the unvaccinated.   

Unlike Covid-19 it kills mainly the young.  According to MSF (Doctors without Borders), 73% of those dead were young children. World Health Organization (WHO) 25% of reported cases are under 5 years old.

A child with measles.

The devastation of measles was something we never knew growing up in a highly vaccinated, well nourished USA.

COVID-19: The third virus has been in Congo less than two months.  Unlike Measles and Ebola its impact is most murderous among the older as well as the weakened.  It came into the capital of Congo with flights of the wealthy and politicians from Europe. 

Faced with the reality of Covid-19 (no vaccine, no known treatment) and knowing the condition of Congo’s unequipped hospitals, poor infrastructure, urban and rural poverty, the government closed down most internal and external transport, locked down part of the capital, instituted hand washing and even tried to institute social distancing.

Social distancing at the bushmeat market in Kindu or any outdoor market is not yet achieved.

We are waiting to see what next week and next month and beyond will bring.

But the key to the difference in Congo’s amazingly successful containment of Ebola and its inability to rein in Measles … lies in foreign funding.

WHO’s Ebola Response Funding report is the following:

270 million dollars since August 2018 when the Ebola epidemic started.  

WHO is asking for another 20 million dollars this month to deal with a resurfacing of the virus, 6 new cases in the town of Beni (an infected person “disappeared” from a treatment center on the 23rd April and is still at large).

WHO’s newsletter reporting on DR Congo’s measles epidemic stated this:

27.6 million dollars have been mobilized; however, a further 40 million is needed.

(note:  most of the western world, where financial aid comes from, is vaccinated. It is apparently hard to feel measles is an important threat.)

Child in an MSF measles ward in the Ituri Province.

What will the world be able to donate to help DR Congo’s Coronavirus response?

  • when even the States struggle to get help from the USA federal government and
  • when the president of the USA has cut funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). –?

Today’s DR Congo news is that the Netherlands has voted to contribute 115 million dollars to help the poorest countries in the world with their Coronavirus response – that, of course, includes Congo.  It is logical – Covid-19 has no respect for sovereignty and will rush back from wherever it remains uncontrolled.   

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.

Congo’s Lost Monkey

Last Kisangani red colobus?

The last Kisangani Red Colobus seen was for sale along the major RN4 road to Kisangani.

Kisangani Red Colobus was designated a “lost species” by Global Wildlife Conservation.  John Hart set out in 2019 to document what was known — either to find the Kisangani Red Colobus or to officially document its extinction.  Below is a record of what he found:

drc_red_colobus MAP

The hatched area is where, in DR Congo, the Kisangani red colobus historically was known to exist.


The animal suddenly disappeared from view at the turn of the century. 

It had first been collected by Herbert Lang during the American Museum of Natural History Congo expedition (1909-1915).  The name it was given in 1925 was in his honor; the scientific name of Kisangani Red Colobus is Piliocolobus langi.

Herbert Lang.  He and James Chapin made a historic collecting trip to Congo for the American Museum of Natural history in the early 20th century.

John led expeditions with Claude Sikubwabo to Maiko National Park between 1989 and 1992 – this was within the P. langi distribution.  Primates were abundant and Red Colobus the most abundant.

Mark Colyn did a general study of Congo’s forest primates in the 1980s and 90s.  He reported in 1991 that the Kisangani Red Colobus was common and frequent as fresh meat in the Kisangani bushmeat market.  By the early 2000s it had disappeared from the market altogether. 

Kisangani bushmeat market_2020

Several major forest roads and the Congo River all bring bushmeat to the major bushmeat market of Kisangani.

What happened? Before 1996 shotguns were almost absent from the Kisangani Red Colobus range. The reigning demagogue, Mobutu Sésé Seko, kept a severe clamp on all privately-owned arms.  Then there was the long-lasting civil war continuing into the first years of the 21st century.  Militias were abundant, shotguns and military rifles suddenly widespread.  Local manufacture of shotguns sprang up in many rural areas.  All controls were off.

meeting and interviewing hunters in the forest

These hunters in the Lobilo forest block are mainly after monkeys.  Only at night can shotguns be used for terrestrial animals and only with powerful headlamps to freeze the animal.

 John found that monkeys were hunted almost exclusively with guns.  Otherwise, hunters mainly used snares for ground-dwelling animals. 

In his 2010 treatise on Red Colobus, Tom Struhsaker (2010) described the P.langi as insufficiently known — and with good reason; no one had ever set out to learn about the Kisangani Red Colobus beyond its presence in the bushmeat market…and well before 2010, it had disappeared. 

Then in 2011 and 2012 two carcasses were seen hung for sale along the main road into Kisangani (see above).  They fit the description of P.langi.

Falay holding interviews in village

In Baego village Paul Falay, John’s student, is using a questionnaire and photos of the 2012 carcass (see lead photo).

But since 2012 there were no reported sightings of the Kisangani Red Colobus.  Did it still exist? 

Kaisala and guide watch red colobus in forest

John’s student, Désiré Kaisala, with guide looking into the branches for red colobus in the Balobe Forest, east of Opienge, where locals told him they still existed.

John Hart organized two search teams each made up of a a forest guide with long experience in inventories and a university trained biologist, Paul Falay and Désiré Kaisala.   John trained them in forest technique, in use of questionnaires, and basic good practices for management of a small cash budget.

langi_interviews v2

Their itinerary through the Kisangani Red Colobus range…..

What that Itinerary meant:  Like most of DR Congo – major roads are barely roads, and most mapped roads no longer exist.

the main road__RN4

RN4 – one of the major arteries into Kisangani, where the lead photo was taken in 2012.

Crossing with bikes to the other side of Lindi River

Crossing bicycles at the Lindi River.

porters carry bikes, tents etc

Backpacking bicycles and loads. Paul Falay’s team on their way back south from Block B towards RN4.

Falay crossing Loko River

And, of course, walking the forest. Here Paul crosses the Loko river.

BUT – They found the lost monkey.

In three months moving from village to village; questioning hunters and following up with forest verification inventories, Paul and Désiré were able to indicate areas of forest where the Kisangani Red Colobus still exists and areas where it has been extirpated. 

map made during mission to interpret interviews

Paul’s field map – kept as he went and gathered answers and red colobus stories from village hunters.

The field maps were refined by reviewing each interview, putting different answers together, combining answers with geographic realities and finally tending towards a conservative interpretation to generate the forest blocks identified in the maps below.

Forest blocks where P.langi still occurs

Mapped results show forest blocks that still have Kisangani red colobus, those that probably do and others that don’t. They hiked into some forest blocks for verification. For the distant forest blocks Paul and Désiré found scant information, but there were also few hunters who ventured into the most remote areas.

Everywhere they looked the Kisangani Red Colobus was suffering.   As expected, the principal loss was from shotgun hunting.  Where there was the most hope for continued healthy populations was in the most distant forests, rarely visited by hunters and for which little information was available.

Two activities that picked up in the 1990s and continue today have undermined Red Colobus security: An abundance of gold and diamond mines in the forests.  Hunters with shotguns often set-up in the mining camps as both animals to hunt and people to buy the meat are close by.


Some forest blocks had long-standing gold operations.


A P. langi interested in the observers.

A second complication is the abundance of military and armed militia.  The presence of military rifles and often inadequate supervision at far outposts allowed slaughters.  Kisangani Red Colobus, are particularly susceptible to these killing sprees as they do not flee when gunshots bring down other members of their group.


Military at far outposts perpetrated mass killings of red colobus.

John believes that relatively modest funds could mobilize projects able to reduce the hunting problem.  All red colobus taxa are totally protected species.  Already there is a barrier to detect illegal bushmeat on the principal roads into Kisangani.  More outreach, particularly to the military, could also have an impact; as would efforts to control unregistered shotguns.

There is one repeating threat to Kisangani Red Colobus that we are unable to control: Epidemics.   Not unlike people with plague, ebola, corona virus – the red colobus, too, seem particularly susceptible to epidemics.

Epidemics killed whole populations

Epidemics greatly reduced or obliterated red colobus populations from certain forest blocks.

P. langi lookng through branches

Red colobus peeks through the leaves.

Despite this, the news is not all bad.  The Kisangani Red Colobus was suspected of having been largely wiped out, instead, John’s teams found it in a number of areas (43 of 92 survey localities and probably present in another 24).  They also found that where epidemics happened the red colobus populations seemed capable of rebounding.

Kaisala inspecting photos taken

Kaisala examining his photos.

olive sunbird on nest

Olive sunbird on her nest .. such sightings are among the unexpected pleasures of spending time in remote forest.

So, the lost monkey has been found.  Particularly good news is that at least some of the communities are interested in protecting their remaining Kisangani Red Colobus.

A little comment John has at the end of this study is   “And there is probably a lot more out there that was lost, but is just waiting to be re-found … or that has not yet been ‘discovered’ and must be found for the first time.”  This is after all the Big, Little-known Congo.

Find the full report here – with the astonishing conclusion that part of the range is not Piliocolobus langi, but an entirely other red colobus taxon.

The investigations reported above were made possible with support from Global Wildlife Conservation and Frankfurt Zoological Society.