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  • Writer's pictureBeth Duff-Brown

Coronavirus in Congo and #BlackLivesMatter

Photo: Clay Banks for Unsplash
Photo: Clay Banks for Unsplash

This post started off as an update on the Coronavirus in Congo — and I will get to that — but it's hard to ignore the other pandemic in our own nation: racism and all the baked-in inequities of our American dream. Millions of people across the United States just finished their second week of taking to the streets to protest yet another killing of a black man by a white cop, followed by the government's militaristic response and complete lack of empathy.

I don't pretend to be an expert on racism in America and know that I live in an entitled white bubble. And while I'm as progressive as they come with an open heart for people of all colors and creeds, I know that I harbor implicit biases of my own. I share this video, which sums it up perfectly: It's so easy for people like me to forget our own racist history: the job pay and home-ownership gaps, the redlining and voter suppression making it harder for African-Americans to acquire equal justice, adequate healthcare and the same educational opportunities given to my daughter and generations before her.

Those eight minutes and 46 seconds that slowly suffocated George Floyd, while he called for his mother, has also set alight a global #BlackLivesMatter movement. In Brussels, for example, some demonstrators tore down this statue of King Leopold II. The royal Belgian colonialist founded the Congo Free State in 1885 and ruled for decades, committing atrocities against those he enslaved to work on his rubber plantations — making him rich.

Perhaps because I write about the research to combat COVID-19 for Stanford Health Policy, I follow the numbers and trends more closely than most. More than 7,000 people have died from the virus in this country in just the last week — but it's fallen from the news. I believe corona still lies in wait for those who let their masks down, so I remain mostly hunkered down in my little townhouse across the San Francisco bay. I attend the occasional #BlackLivesMatter rally, but never forget the spike in cases these justifiable protests are likely to bring. One SHP professor who warned me back in January there would be a pandemic and to get prepared, told me today that we're not yet out of the woods.

It's been hard to watch the country, with all our brilliant medical minds and technological advancements, manage to botch this beast so badly: The world’s highest number of cases and the highest number of deaths, with more than 110,000 as of this writing. We’re the only industrialized nation that appears to have given up on its national strategy, though the beleaguered and sidelined CDC keeps trying to get it back on track. Tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if Trump had listened to the scientists and taken action earlier. 

We were so unprepared for this pandemic that the great Doctors Without Borders (MSF) — whose amazing healthcare workers I met across Africa and Asia — had to come to our aid.

Then, just as we are flattening the curve, Trump declares we will cut ties with the World Health Organization, in what would appear to be a tactic to please his anti-globalization base and avert our gaze from the grim truth: Nearly people in the United States have died in just three months on his watch. There is no evidence the WHO or Beijing tried to hide the extent of the epidemic in Wuhan. And it's done so much to combat polio, TB, HIV and Ebola. WHO was also at the forefront of fighting smallpox; one of its chiefs was the late American epidemiologist Donald Henderson, who led the global fight that finally eradicated smallpox in the 1980s.

It’s easy for some to disregard the bloated and bureaucratic U.N. agencies, like the WHO, because most Americans don’t see them in action. They do have significant problems. But I can assure you that in my 15 years as a foreign correspondent, most of them spent in developing countries, and in all my visits to Congo, the WHO and  UNICEF were often the only ones on the ground working alongside local governments to deliver childhood vaccines and nutrition packets in remote regions, while trying to mitigate contagious diseases  (like the measles outbreak in Congo I wrote about earlier this year) and build public health centers. 

Giving the measles vaccine in Congo (UNICEF)

The United States is the world’s largest funder of the WHO, followed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and then Great Britain. We have long been credited for our bipartisan moral leadership in improving global health. If we withhold our WHO contributions, we are not only turning our backs on many of those 3 billion people worldwide who live in poverty, but weakening our own defenses against future pandemics. And we cede ever more power of the WHO to China — one of Trump's big fears.

Talk about cutting off our nose to spite our face

So, it does my heart good to see that DR Congo has, knock wood, so far managed to avoid the worst of it. This is a great daily tracker that my friend James shared with me. Those of you who have followed my Peace Corps saga know that he’s the American half of the great Jim-and-James team who helped me with my trip last September. James gives me updates from Kananga every now and then and as of today, there are no cases in the Kasai Central province. In my WhatsApp chat with Jim today, he said, "With the coronavirus and George Floyd manifestations, for once, we are the ones worried about you guys!"

When COVID-19 became a pandemic, I was so worried the DRC, what with its terrible infrastructure and lack of healthcare facilities, would be devastated. But as of today, there are just over 4,000 cases nationwide — though more than 90% are in Kinshasa — with 537 people hospitalized and only 85 reported deaths. Of course, the numbers are much higher, as they are in this country, but it could have been so much worse by now.

I joined a Zoom call today with some wonderful neighbors whose Presbyterian Church group established the Congo Mission Network, and they work tirelessly to raise awareness about issues in the DRC and money to build schools there. Jeff and Cristi Boyd, liaison of the Presbyterian Mission in Congo, joined us from Kinshasa.

They said the pandemic has mostly skirted the DRC.

“We can really only guess, but we have been closely monitoring things for three months now and the statistics have been quite consistent,” Christi said. “The epicenter of the pandemic in Congo is here in Kinshasa, where there are 12 million people who are constantly on the move, so you never really know.”

Jeff helped me with my shambolic Foldscope project when I was in Kinshasa last fall and is still helping the Stanford professor who developed the $1 paper microscope. He said the level of testing is quite low in Congo like in the States, so the true number of cases is likely higher. “But we’re not hearing reports about the inundation of hospitals — so that’s a hopeful sign that the numbers are realistic, in the sense that the health system is not being overwhelmed.”

United Nations poster in many African languages.

I asked the Boyds about reports that healthcare workers in Kinshasa were being physically attacked by those who don’t believe the virus is real. This June 2 AFP story quotes a man, Hussein: “Here in the Congo, all there is is malaria and ordinary fever. Corona is in Europe, in China. We have antibodies, from the time of our ancestors.”

Christi said this denial stems from people struggling daily to feed their families while they see aid workers driving around in their big cars telling them what to do. “There has been some suspicion that some of this (the pandemic) has been created so that other will get money,” he said. So there are some heightened sensitivities.”

The Boyds are also optimistic that despite reports that efforts to combat coronavirus will undermine the response to latest Ebola outbreak in the western city of Mbandaka, the Congolese health ministry has become expert at confronting the rare but deadly virus. It’s the country’s 11th cycle of Ebola since 1976.

“I want to credit the Congolese government,” Christi said. “While they’re supported by the international organizations, they are on top of things too.”

That’s not to say it won't get much worse if COVID0-19 escapes inland. And the pandemic is having a negative impact in other ways. Some funding for childhood vaccines is being diverted for coronavirus prep and some parents are afraid to visit clinics with their infants for fear of infection. UNICEF reports that vaccination rates since the beginning of the year have declined by 8 to 10 percent, which could leave children at increased risk of contracting other diseases such as polio, measles and yellow fever, later in life.

I saved the best for last. A Congolese friend sent me this video of how they're staying as safe as they can. It makes me smile — and count my blessings — every time I watch.

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