Pro-democracy activists from Filimbi movement raise awareness about the COVID-19 pandemic in Kinshasa’s Gambela market, Democratic Republic of Congo, March 28, 2020. © 2020 Filimbi

(Kinshasa) – The Democratic Republic of Congo’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic should prioritize support for low-income communities, displaced people, and others at greatest risk, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Congolese government should quickly begin an effective communications strategy to provide accurate, timely information about measures to contain the coronavirus. The government should also prepare for disruption in food security and access to health care, and ensure that health workers are protected. And the authorities should direct the security forces to enforce the law while respecting basic rights.

“Congo’s government needs to react to the overwhelming Covid-19 crisis with a global approach that respects not only the health but all rights of everyone in the country,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should develop aid strategies with local and international partners to reach the most vulnerable populations and ensure that health workers can do their jobs safely.”

Congolese health officials have confirmed 134 Covid-19 cases as of April 2, 2020, with 13 deaths. Most cases have been in the capital, Kinshasa, while a handful have been reported in cities in eastern Congo. However, as elsewhere in the world, the actual number of cases is most likely higher since testing is limited and many with the virus may not show symptoms.

The Congolese government has already taken steps to stop the spread of the virus, including restricting all forms of internal and international travel except for cargo; banning large gatherings; closing bars, restaurants, places of worship and schools; and shutting down borders. Instructions have been given to erect water points for hand washing in public areas, but Human Rights Watch has found that many districts in cities and towns are still awaiting equipment. While public health information campaigns are being rolled out, these efforts should be scaled up nationwide, including by involving respected community leaders and institutions and ensuring that all communications are translated into local languages and dialects.

The National Institute for Biomedical Research, based in Kinshasa, coordinates testing and processes all samples across the country of 80 million people. The government should decentralize its testing capacities to identify people infected with Covid-19 more effectively, and isolate and start treating positive cases faster, Human Rights Watch said.

“In Kinshasa, our teams don’t have enough vehicles, and we can only test about 80 people a day [for Covid-19],” a medical worker told Human Rights Watch. The worker said they lack protective equipment and wear the same masks all day. Many health workers await transport to enable them to work and they do not know how and when they will be paid.

Kinshasa residents say that people having potential Covid-19 symptoms struggle to get through to hotlines made available to alert the health authorities about suspected cases.

Medical workers who have reviewed official documents outlining health system capacity, also seen by Human Rights Watch, raised concerns that hospitals designated to treat Covid-19’s sickest patients remain underequipped. Only a few dozen ventilators are available throughout the country, hospitals lack oxygen supplies, and functional intensive care units are scarce.

Kinshasa’s provincial governor, Gentiny Ngobila, announced on April 2 that Kinshasa’s business district, Gombe, will be on total lockdown for 14 days, starting on April 6. As officials consider extending the lockdown to other districts and cities, they should recognize that strictly confining people at home will hurt millions who work in the informal sector and live hand-to-mouth. The government should take steps to the maximum of available resources so that people have sufficient food and access to clean water. The authorities should work with neighborhood and community groups, houses of worship, and local and international aid organizations to ensure everyone’s health and well-being, including by organizing food and water distributions in the most at-risk neighborhoods. The government and its partners should also address health issues other than Covid-19. 

Distrust, misinformation, and suspicion during the response to an Ebola outbreak in late 2018 in eastern Congo sparked violence against health workers, helping the virus spread while critical assistance was partially suspended.

On March 26, Kinshasa’s governor had announced that the entire city would begin an intermittent lockdown for three weeks, starting on March 28. Crowds of panicked residents rushed to banks, shops, and markets to stock up on food and goods, causing prices of staples to skyrocket. On the evening of March 27, the authorities suspended the lockdown plans, revealing disagreements between provincial officials and the central government.

When the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Congo on March 10, there was confusion as information from the health minister and regional government officials was sometimes inaccurate. Civil society groups and many Congolese have expressed their frustration as the government struggled to communicate accurate information and an effective plan in response to the pandemic.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has put prevention measures in place in camps for internally displaced people and refugees that should be urgently ramped up to all sites. More than five million displaced people live in dire conditions across the country and are already in need of life-saving assistance, including food, water, and health care. Covid-19 could put displaced people and refugees at a heightened risk of mortality should the virus reach the camps.

State security forces, in responding to lawbreaking and violence, should respect human rights including only using force when strictly necessary. On March 29, Gen. Sylvano Kasongo, the head of police in Kinshasa, appeared to be ordering police officers to beat a motorcycle-taxi driver, in apparent “punishment” for violating social distancing measures, video footage indicated.

On March 30, the police killed at least 3 people and wounded 11 others, according to a UN source, when they fired live rounds at members of the Bundu dia Kongo politico-religious movement who were demonstrating in Kinshasa to “chase the spirit of the coronavirus.” The authorities should issue clear orders to the security forces that they are to act with restraint while enforcing restrictions in place.  

“The Congolese government’s response to the pandemic should start with a robust communication plan to gain the people’s trust,” Mudge said. “But it will need to quickly put in place rights-respecting humanitarian measures. The survival of millions of people will depend on it.”