GOMA, Congo—In 1994, when Cacuru Emmanuel was 12, 850,000 people fleeing neighboring Rwanda poured into his hometown of Goma.
Eight years later, the Nyiragongo volcano spat out a 1 ½-mile-wide river of lava that destroyed his house and 40% of the city.
In late 2012, Goma was captured by rebels and Emmanuel’s sister was killed by a stray bullet.
And over the last two years, an Ebola outbreak in the city and the surrounding province has killed at least 2,273 people.
Now the government says coronavirus is coming.
Bars, restaurants and churches closed across the Democratic Republic of Congo last week after the president declared a national state of emergency.
Emmanuel, who once earned $5 a day carrying luggage back and forth from Rwanda, has been unemployed since the border was closed to travelers more than a week ago.
“I can’t work at all,” he said. “It’s never been as grave as this before.”
The virus arrived late in Africa, which has far fewer international travelers than the other parts of the world where COVID-19 has been killing large numbers of people for weeks or months.
The country did not detect its first case until March 10. Since then, it has confirmed a total of 123 cases — most of them in the capital, Kinshasa — and 11 deaths. Testing is limited, making it impossible to know the true caseload.
North Kivu, the eastern province where Goma is located, recorded its first case on Monday — a 44-year-old man who works for a humanitarian organization and had just returned from his native Nigeria.
Having endured so much has left the city of 2 million with a complicated mix of emotions toward the pandemic.
“If it arrives we could all die,” said Kajang Anuaritte, a 27-year-old tailor and mother of five who works out of a wooden stall at the sprawling Virunga market on the east side of the city.
“There’s hundreds of us here packed together, it will spread easily,” she said. “How can we maintain distance? But I’m not afraid because there’s nothing we can do.”
The country’s healthcare system is fragile, with just nine doctors for every 100,000 people, compared with about 259 in United States.
The supply of ventilators would quickly run out if the virus takes hold. There are also concerns that underlying conditions such as HIV, malaria, measles and malnutrition could leave millions of Congolese particularly vulnerable.
In a nation of 89 million people, the government has set aside just $1.8 million to care for coronavirus patients, educate the public about the pandemic and enforce measures to help contain it.
Yet in some ways, Goma is more prepared than many other places in the world.
Due to the Ebola crisis, the city is dotted with checkpoints where everybody is subjected to a temperature check — performed with handheld infrared thermometers — and required to wash their hands at chlorinated water stations before being allowed to pass.
The city’s airport has an isolation chamber that was built for people displaying symptoms of Ebola but will now also be used for COVID-19. Now a modern laboratory is being constructed in central Goma to analyze coronavirus test samples from across eastern Congo.
“North Kivu has an advantage because it has already responded to the problem of Ebola,” says Moise Kakule Kanyere, health minister for the province. “Our personnel have experience in isolating and investigating cases and the local population is already aware of the procedures needed in situations like this.”
Another cause for optimism is that less than 6% of the population is 55 or older. The vast majority of people who have died of COVID-19 worldwide are senior citizens.
In interviews around Goma, the dominant sentiment was a lack of faith that the government could do much to stop the virus.
COVID-19 is widely seen here as a mzungu — or white person — disease, and conspiracy theories about it are rife.
Government blunders haven’t helped. Kinshasa was preparing for an extended lockdown of the capital, but officials called it off Saturday after prices for food and other essential goods skyrocketed.
The same day, authorities announced that the coronavirus had reached North Kivu, but soon had to correct themselves: The cases were in fact in neighboring Ituri province.
“How can we believe what they tell us?” said David Kimeni, who makes his living hauling produce in a wooden cart. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Kimeni, 28, is far from alone here in arguing that the “physical distancing” policy proposed by the World Health Organization simply won’t work in sub-Saharan Africa, where informal workers rely on street trading and public minibuses are often packed.
“What if I can’t work?” he said. “How will my children eat? We will have to steal.”
Ngongo Amunazo, a 40-year-old fish trader, maintained that the virus was no worse than previous threats the city had endured.
“We have survived militia attacks, corruption and deadly diseases,” she said.
“The world should see what it’s like to suffer Corona Felix, not coronavirus,” she said, taking a jab at the country’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, who has made little progress on poverty, corruption and conflict since taking office after a 2018 election that many suspect was rigged.
Amunazo’s biggest worry was the economic impact of the measures taken to contain the virus.
In the last few weeks, the wholesale price of dried fish has climbed more than 40%.
“If it keeps rising, we will have to shut down,” she said.
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