How coronavirus is affecting the Democratic Republic of the Congo

13 August 2020

Supported by CAFOD, the Olame Centre women's group are making detergent and soap to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Supported by CAFOD, the Olame Centre women's group are making detergent and soap to combat the spread of coronavirus.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is still recovering from years of devastating civil war, which killed almost four million people. Violence is an ever-present problem for vulnerable communities that are facing the threats of the Ebola virus, food shortages and now coronavirus. 

Bernard Balibuno has been our country director in DR Congo for seven years. He tells us how your donations are changing the lives of families and communities that only a faith-based organisation, like CAFOD, can reach.

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What was the situation in DR Congo before coronavirus hit?

This country has been a country with turmoil and a lot of rebel movements and that has caused a lot of displacement for many years.

We have over five million displaced people, especially in the east side of the country where a lot of rebel movement has been recorded. In these areas where rebels are active, people can't do their daily shop, they can’t go to their farms, without risking rape or other violence.

Elsewhere in the DRC we’ve had famine, natural catastrophes, environmental issues and fighting between tribes. So all over the country there are a lot of problems, and that is causing the lives of normal Congolese to become even harder.

What challenges are there to surviving lockdown and fighting coronavirus?  

Coronavirus came and we are living in a very different world again right now, where the government has been locking down some areas, closing schools, closing travel.

Imagine living in a country where everything is imported from outside, now, there is nothing coming in. Where people live on a daily basis so the women or the men need to go out and earn one dollar or two dollars to eat that day. In a country where the markets need to open every day so people can survive. In a country where you need to pay for your healthcare in cash.  

We are seeing some very, very serious poverty issues here. Yes, coronavirus is killing people, but the consequences of coronavirus will even kill more people.

“We ask for our supporters to continue praying for us so that we can go through this difficult situation, but we need not only prayers at this particular point in this country, we also need support, any support that can come.”

Bernard Balibuno

What lessons have been learnt from the response to Ebola?

During the Ebola time we saw a lot of community resistance to international help and conspiracy theories developing. Specialists came from all over the world to fight this Ebola, but people asked "Are they here to help us really? We've been dying for this many years, now they're all here?"

We are seeing that with the coronavirus again. But the good news is that the Church has been involved. Our goal and our objective as an organisation has been to ensure that faith organisations are involved very early on. The Church is sensitising people to coronavirus, helping alongside the government.

We've seen how the community have been very receptive because they're the same people who are talking to them, they know them. They trust them as their faith leaders. The faith leaders use the language people in that particular community understand and they know. This turned everything around.

How else has the Church helped to respond to coronavirus?

In this country the infrastructure has been broken down for many, many years. So people have relied on Church infrastructures for many, many years.

In the areas controlled by rebels, we are getting reports from our Church partners in these areas that people are suffering, and we can't directly reach those people we're supposed to reach or we need to reach.

But the good news is that our Church partners are there. With all this, the Church is very, very well organised to reach those people.

Help us reach those in need by giving to our coronavirus appeal

What about those who’ve fled conflict, and who are now homeless?

Our heart goes to those who are very, very vulnerable in displacement camps at this particular point. Those who are in host families. How about the displaced family that are in Beni right now? How about the families have been hit by flooding in Uvira right now? How about the family that we support in Kalehe that have been relying on our cash distribution or food distribution?

I think we need to look at that at that level and see how the vulnerability of a normal citizen in this country has gone deeper and deeper and we will be losing many lives if we do not act and act right now.

What has CAFOD been doing?

There's positivity that we as humanitarian workers, especially we as a Church institution, we are coming already with the experience we had during Ebola, and this experience we bring to coronavirus.

We have repurposed some of the funding we had for long-term development to put into coronavirus response and we are supplying food to close to 2,000 households in six communes here in Kinshasa. And we plan to extend this project to further communes.

We learned from Ebola that the involvement of young people is very, very important. We have three projects to give young people proper information on coronavirus, and they spread that information to other young people on WhatsApp. And they will be telling other young people "Have you seen this? Did you know you have to do this?" And this has spread, and we've seen a lot of impact from this.

The Catholic Church has community radios all over DR Congo, and using those community radios is also critical because people use their local jargons. So using those local people who are already known on the radio in the community was also critical to making sure the message is passed on.

Bernard Balibuno, CAFOD's country director for DR Congo, greets a colleague in a photo taken before coronavirus.

Bernard Balibuno, CAFOD's country director for DR Congo, greets a colleague in a photo taken before coronavirus.

Is DR Congo's national debt another problem?

DR Congo has debts from the Chinese government, a lot of European governments, a lot of Western governments. The last time I heard the number it was a huge, huge number. And that is hindering the development of the country, of course.

And now with coronavirus, we have another health emergency. The government will need to focus on investing the scarce resources that they had already in health as opposed to focusing on paying outside debts.

I think dropping the debt that they owe to all the European countries or Western countries will help the government invest in healthcare and of course in other social services as well. It's an important campaign that you are running in the UK and you have our support and our prayers.

Tell our leaders it’s time to cancel the debt

What gives you hope?

I was born in this country and now I'm 50 years old and my parents always told me there is hope for tomorrow. And many people my age are losing hope in the future of this country, but I've not lost hope.

You see a child whom you supported a couple of years ago, and today, the child is going to school, the mother has started a business and has two people working for her because of the microcredit project that CAFOD supplies.

You go to this community that did not have water, because clean water is probably ten kilometres from their village. Then you meet this lady who's blind, who does not see, and she tells you, you've saved my life because now I wash everyday. Now my life has a purpose, because I'm also in the committee that manages water, and I meet with people to mingle with them daily. And you come back with your heart full of gratitude.

I think we've made those kind of changes and that's what keeps us going daily.

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