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Story Publication logo May 8, 2020

Controversial Communication Around COVID-19 in DRC


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How are the Pulitzer Center team and its Campus Consortium community responding to the COVID-19...

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Empty streets of Kinshasa on May 2, 2020. Image by Russel Kasongo. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2020.
Empty streets of Kinshasa on May 2, 2020. Image by Russel Kasongo. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2020.

At this critical time when the entire world is held in suspense waiting for news linked to the coronavirus, some leaders and politicians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are offering a real Molotov cocktail to the citizens. The mixture on the menu: discordant announcements, controversial and sometimes uncoordinated reactions, spiced with impressive media appearances.

The Beginning

Everything started on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, with the announcement of the first case of coronavirus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Minister of Health Eteni Longondo initially said the patient was a Belgian citizen who was in Kinshasa for a short visit, but it was later revealed that the patient was a Congolese citizen who was living in France and had arrived in Kinshasa on March 8. 

This confusion surrounding the identity of the patient was the first step in provoking a debate about the country's approach to COVID-19. 

Among the responses directly scrutinizing the arrival of COVID-19 in DRC, it's worth noting a tweet from Eve Bazaiba, Secretary General of the political party Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), speeches from national deputy and Molière TV owner Léon Nembalemba, and the commentary from columnist Zacharie Bababaswe, who also heads the channel Direk TV. These and other actors insinuated that the announcement of the disease's arrival was solely a tactic for gaining access to funds for the fight against the coronavirus.

These different messages, which have spurred many online comments, have not only succeeded in raising doubts among many Congolese; they have also created a gap between leaders and the country's population and called into question statements made by the authorities, thus giving free rein to "sidewalk radio," the trivialization of the disease, and negligence in practicing the protective measures recommended by the health authorities.

As if to rub salt into an open wound, just one day after the minister's statement, DRC's first victim of the coronavirus appeared in the local press and on social media networks, declaring that he was not ill and complaining that he had been abandoned in a Kinshasa hospital without adequate treatment.

In a somewhat veiled response to his detractors, on Sunday, March 15, Longondo, via Okapi radio stations, called on his fellow citizens to refrain from sending out bad-faith messages aimed to discourage the population. ''We do indeed have this disease at home in the DRC. Let there be no doubt. This is the third case. I cannot, as the others say, invent cases in the Congo. I am Minister of Health and I must protect the health of the Congolese people. The population must not rely on what is said on social networks," he said.

Kinshasa, Capital of All Challenges

Kinshasa, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, is a megalopolis with more than 10 million people, where the majority of the population live day-to-day and where access to proper medical care is reserved for the privileged few. After a short period of hesitation, Congolese leaders changed their minds and embarked on raising awareness—calling for observance of the protection measures decreed by the COVID-19 response team.

In fact, the so-called opinion leaders seem to have found another way to raise their profile. They arouse suspicion  among the population and encourage the search for shortcuts to protect themselves from this invisible enemy.

For example, when some called for the use of certain traditional medicinal plants, Kinshasa saw a surge in demand for these products. This obviously made shopkeepers happy, but unfortunately, at least one family paid the price: three children of the same family died following a purge. As a preventive measure and out of fear, a woman tried to purge her children with Vernonia amygdalina juice (commonly known as Kongo Bololo) mixed with lemon juice. The facts from this story were reported by some outlets, which has helped reduce the surge in popularity of medicinal plants.

Kinshasa, Between Uncertainty and Hesitation

As the number of patients suffering from coronavirus is exponentially increasing, on Wednesday, March 18, eight days after the first announcement of coronavirus in DRC, the President of the Republic Felix Tshisekedi, announced a series of measures aimed to limit the spread of the virus, including the closure of schools, restaurants, bars and churches, a ban of meetings, and the suspension of flights coming from countries considered to be at risk.

Governor of Kinshasa Gentiny Ngobila also announced some practical measures to combat the spread of the virus such as reducing the number of passengers in public transport and allowing only pharmaceutical and food sales to operate in the capital.

On March 25, one week after the announcement of the first measures, President Tshisekedi announced a State of Emergency and lockdown in Kinshasa, as well as its isolation from the other DRC provinces.

As if the President's measures were not enough, on the evening of March 26, the Governor of Kinshasa announced an intermittent total lockdown for three weeks to take effect on Saturday, March 28.

With the city experiencing power outages, some heads of families were not informed about the news until the morning of March 27. As might be expected, after receiving such an announcement, people were surprised. Even those who were already following lockdown rules went out in considerable numbers to purchase supplies. There was a lot of pushing at banks, bus stops, and markets—and social distancing was not kept.

Several personalities disapproved of the way the urban authority acted and expressed their indignation online.

A tweet from citizen movement Lutte Pour Le Changement (LUCHA) read: ''the total lockdown of Kinshasa, where the majority of 10 million people live from day to day, often without water or power, is senseless, the only outcome will be a humanitarian catastrophe or revolts."

Jean-Claude Katende, a lawyer and human rights activist, said, "Confinement in Kinshasa will only bring misery to the people who have not benefited from public funding in the way politicians have."

However, on the evening of Friday, March 27, just a few hours before the Governor's measures were meant to come into effect on Saturday, March 28, the provincial government announced it would postpone the total lockdown.

The complaints came from many citizens: ''We have just bought supplies for the total lockdown, food for which prices have been doubled or even tripled."

Contradictions Over the Postponement of the Kinshasa Confinement

The Governor of Kinshasa's communiqué said the postponement was justified due to rapid escalation in the prices of basic goods and out of concern for threats to security. But the one issued by the Prime Minister's Office referred to the jostles observed in the capital and the need to accompany confinement with screening measures, especially focused at the site of DRC's COVID-19 outbreak—the commune of Gombe. This contradicts the version given by the Governor about the reasons regarding the postponement.

This cacophony coming from the highest levels pushed journalists to conclude, "when decisions are not coordinated, there can only be contradictions." 

For some observers, the decision, its annulment, and the reasons given by the provincial authority constitute incompetence that should lead to his dismissal. Others saw the Governor's decision as an opportunity for speculative traders to do business by raising the prices of certain basic goods whenever they want.

Confinement of the Gombe Commune

Gombe, a commune in Kinshasa, is considered as the epicenter of DRC's COVID-19 outbreak. On Thursday, April 2, when the cumulative number of coronavirus cases had reached 123, the Governor of Kinshasa announced the confinement of Gombe commune.

Gombe, Kinshasa's administrative and commercial center, was to remain closed for two weeks starting on April 6. Only a few categories of people who had a badge were allowed in.  

But, on the morning of April 6, citizens were disappointed to see long lines of vehicles and walkers prevented from entering Gombe commune. Yet again, there was a misunderstanding in the communication of the Governor's instructions—this time, by the police officers operating at the Gombe entry points. 

The police requested a document signed by his Chief General Kasongo while the badges given out were signed by the Governor. 

Even journalists were not spared from this confusion. The president of the National Union of the Congolese Press, Tshilunde Kasonga, was outraged that the Congolese government did not recognize the badges issued to journalists. But, the governorate claims that it facilitated the journalists' work by granting several badges to media outlets based within the Gombe commune.

To round off the fiasco at the beginning of the Gombe commune's confinement, the public also witnessed a video widely shared on social media networks, which showed a cacophonous scene between the province's first-in-command and Kinshasa's chief of police, Sylvano Kasongo. 

A Quick Look at the COVID-19 Response Coordinator 

Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe, well-known for his role in the response against Ebola, was appointed in March 2020 by President Tshisekedi as National Coordinator of the response against the Covid-19 pandemic in DRC.

On the day before the State of Emergency declaration, Dr. Muyembe said the confinement of the capital was "not an obligation" in an interview by Romain Gras, a journalist for Jeune Afrique

According to the statements of the technical officer in charge of the response, the decision to confine the city of Kinshasa was really not justified. So where did the Governor get the idea to impose a lockdown? 

Although well-received by most of his fellow citizens, Dr. Muyembe's technical skills were put to the test on Friday, April 3. ''We were chosen to do these tests. The vaccine will be produced either in the United States, Canada, or China. We are candidates to do the testing in our own country," he said to journalists in an audience, including  Mike Hammer, U.S. Ambassador to the DRC. 

This little comment from the leader of DRC's COVID-19 response provoked a general outcry, not only in DRC, but the diaspora and across Africa, forcing Dr. Muyembe to back-pedal in order to ease tensions in the population. He ensured that there would be no vaccination in the Congo without prior clinical testing in the U.S. or China. 

Coronavirus Outside Kinshasa

Since the presence of COVID-19 was announced in DRC, the disease appeared to have been contained in Kinshasa—but on March 22, the Governor of Haut Katanga province, Jacques Kyabula, announced that two people infected with the coronavirus had entered Lubumbashi coming from Kinshasa from a Congo Airways plane that had 77 passengers onboard. He decreed a confinement of 48 hours across the province in order to find the other passengers from this flight. According to the provincial authority, diagnoses were made using rapid tests while waiting for more reliable results.

Dr. Muyembe, the COVID-19 response boss, announced that it had been a false alarm, saying the epidemic had been contained in Kinshasa.  

On his Twitter account, the Minister of Health also confirmed this information. The two suspected cases have tested negative.  

The situation of the first two suspected cases in Lubumbashi also caused a controversy between the provincial authorities and some NGOs that became concerned by the fact that these two people were kicked out of Lubumbashi by the provincial government, despite being declared negative by the Institut National pour la Recherche Biomedicale (INRB). 

On March 26, a Congolese virologist announced the first case of Coronavirus detected outside Kinshasa, in North Kivu. This information was denied by the provincial Governor Carly Nzanzu the next day, assuring that the infected person was actually in Ituri. 

Confirming that it was indeed the province of Ituri that was affected, Dr. Muyembe explained that the confusion was due to samples that came from Ituri but labeled as coming from the North Kivu province.

The COVID-19 pandemic is real and must be considered seriously. People used to say that to lead is to prevent. While it's true that the COVID-19 response manager had given reassurance that DRC was ready for the response two months before the virus arrived in the country, events have since proven sufficiently that there is a desperate need for harmonization, accountability, and coordination in the communication around the coronavirus.  

From this point of view, we can say that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the weaknesses and inconsistencies of our governments regarding communication during a crisis.


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