The DRC’s response to Covid-19 must be tailored to local context

COMMENT

Since the first case of Covid-19 was announced on March 10, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has recorded 572 cases of infection and 31 deaths, as of May 1, according to the World Health Organisation. When we compare the DRC curve with that of other countries, we could expect an exponential growth in the number of new infections in the coming weeks.

The government is waging a battle at all levels against this infectious disease. All state structures, including the ministries of health and education and the prime minister’s office are working to minimise the effect of Covid-19. But we all know that it is not easy to contain this virus, because many people are asymptomatic and might be transmitting it unknowingly.

To contain Covid-19, we need to tailor our response to the local context. More than half of the population are children and life expectancy is 60 years. We must pay particular attention to diseases such as malaria, measles and malnutrition, which kill children under the age of five more than any other segment of the population, and adapt our response strategy accordingly.

My role as the United Nations Children’s Fund representative in the DRC is to focus Unicef’s efforts to support the government and its partners in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic. I ensure that Unicef’s programmes continue despite the Covid-19 crisis. That the immunisation of children continues, while respecting social distancing measures to prevent children, mothers and caregivers from being infected with the coronavirus. That malnourished children receive the necessary support and that malaria programmes continue to save lives. We are adapting our programmes to the current situation, because, if we were to stop our activities, the consequences for children would be devastating.

Every morning I go to the Unicef office. I attend various meetings throughout the day, including meetings of the presidential task force, the Covid-19 technical committee, the ministry of health, where I have an advisory and support role. At the moment, I am working with the ministry of education on the launch of a dedicated radio station that would allow 27-million children in the DRC to continue learning despite being confined at home. Our 12 offices around the country continue to work, while respecting prevention measures.


In terms of priorities in the response to Covid-19, Unicef is accompanying the health ministry in a communication campaign to explain to people what the disease is, its symptoms, how it is transmitted, how to limit its spread and what behaviours to adopt when one feels sick.

Unicef has helped print and disseminate 200 000 posters and more than two million leaflets in French and in the four national languages. There is now a toll-free number, 101, supported by 50 counsellors that people can call and ask questions. In this call centre, we work with several partners including telephone companies, which have made their equipment available to the Covid hotline free of charge. We are now adding consultants with a medical background who can answer more technical questions.

We are working with more than 20 000 community action committees around the country to spur individuals into action and champion preventive behaviours in their areas. This is a battle that we can win with the public’s involvement.

Another priority for Unicef is to improve the diagnostic skills of health workers, so that they can provide children with the right treatment. We have ordered protective equipment for health personnel, including 160 000 masks. I must admit that we are experiencing great difficulty in getting this equipment shipped to the DRC. For this reason, we have launched a local tender for the purchase of masks that could be sewn by local seamstresses. We are also going to buy soap locally.

I would like to pay tribute to the health workers, the unsung heroes who, despite the risks, spare no effort to care for the sick.

Another challenge we face is to secure new funding to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Unicef estimates that $58-million is needed for an immediate response in its areas of responsibility. We have already allocated $5-million from our own resources to meet critical needs until additional funding is secured. Now more than ever, we need the support of our partners. 

For the children, I fear that focusing our efforts solely on the coronavirus will lead to the resurgence of deadly endemic diseases such as measles and cholera. Covid-19 may divert the attention of health workers and further weaken the country’s health system. If health facilities do not have the capacity to provide immunisation, nutrition and other essential services, especially in remote areas of the country, the lives and futures of many Congolese children may be scarred or destroyed by these preventable diseases. I commend the government for issuing the directive on the continuity of immunisation services in the context of Covid-19

I have personal experience with Covid-19. One of my sons is a student in France and became infected. He has recovered. The rest of my family lives in the DRC and we are all exposed to the virus in the same way as anyone else. This disease does not discriminate. 

To all those people who don’t believe Covid-19 exists, I assure you that it does. It is important to listen to the advice of the doctors. Only in this way can we protect ourselves.

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Edouard Beigbeder
Edouard Beigbeder is the United Nations Children’s Fund representative in the DRC

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