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Long porous borders, poverty, risky behaviour fuel virus in DR Congo

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PATRICK ILUNGA

By PATRICK ILUNGA
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The Democratic Republic of Congo imposed a lockdown on the capital Kinshasa, just after the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the country, to limit the spread of the disease.

But weeks later, five of the country’s 26 provinces have reported at least one case each, meaning the disease had already spread outside the capital.

On the face of it, Kinshasa is the focal point. It has reported 347 out of the 359 cases reported in the country so far, (by Thursday figures).

North Kivu, which hosts a large community of expatriates working with humanitarian organisations has reported five, followed by South Kivu with four, Ituri province has two and Kwilu, the closest province to Kinshasa, has only one case.

Kinshasa was isolated from other provinces on March 24 to stem the spread from the densely populated capital to the regions.

Flights were suspended and travel in and out of the capital forbidden, except for essential services.

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Yet Kinshasa is also a major commercial and transport hub, with its entire food supply coming in daily from neighbouring Kongo Central, Kwilu, Kwango and Maï-Ndombe. Those goods have continued to flow in, albeit under restricted movement.

According to a national analysis, however, only Ituri and Kwilu’s covid-19 cases were directly linked to Kinshasa.

Famous virologist
Jean Bamanisa Saïdi, the governor of Ituri (1,700km east of Kinshasa) said the first two cases in his province came from Kinshasa.

They were reported two days before the capital’s isolation. In Kwilu, 670km from Kinshasa, a second was reported of a Belgian who had been in Kinshasa for five days, (March 8-13, long) before the capital was isolated.

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In early April, Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe, a famous virologist and head of the technical secretariat for the response to the coronavirus, had argued that; “the case of Covid-19 discovered in Bukavu, in South Kivu, came from Burundi.”

Officials insisted that there was no way the first case in North Kivu would have come from Kinshasa either.

In the DRC, however, nothing is certain. Movement of people between Kinshasa and the provinces continued for at least two weeks after the first case was announced in the capital.

It is has proven difficult to completely stop movement even in the lockdown.

Witnesses in Kasangulu, a small town in Kongo Central Province near Kinshasa admit to seeing people passing through the roadblocks, and sometimes aided by the very police officers meant to prevent it, often after bribing the officer.

Paradoxically, Kongo Central itself is yet to report a case.

Although it closed its borders soon after it became evident cases were rising, the country was still vulnerable to movement of people through its long porous borders with nine countries.

With the largest number of borders for a country in Africa, DRC could see contagion coming from elsewhere, just as the country could infect its neighbours.

At the moment, it appears the failure to implement a lockdown of Kinshasa, with 12 million inhabitants could haunt them. By last week, only the Commune of Gombe in Kinshasa, the epicentre of the virus, was still under lockdown, the rest of the city having been lifted gradually.

Last week, authorities imposed a compulsory mask wearing policy for everyone in public spaces. However, in low-income neighbourhoods, the vast majority of people do not observe safety measures.



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