“With health systems in even high-income countries still at risk of being overwhelmed by the pandemic, leaders would do well to heed the example of the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo).” This was the conclusion of the World Health Organization’s director general in a Guardian article announcing the end of the latest Ebola outbreak in Congo. Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus used the June 25 announcement to notify governments and health agencies of what measures were behind Congo’s success in turning back Ebola. “The Congolese people ended a devastating outbreak through an unshakeable commitment to science, data and community, and with international solidarity.”
The Congolese have benefited from the learnings and improvements in health infrastructure gained in stemming spread of Ebola in their response to the COVID virus. The latest WHO statistics on COVID in Congo speak for themselves: in a population of 90 million people there have been 11,052 cases and 303 deaths. These figures are way below those of other Central African countries. In the neighboring Republic of Congo there have been 5,156 total COVID cases with 92 deaths in a country with less than half the population of the DRC. Rwanda leads the DRC in most measures of economic and infrastructure development but has treated 383 cases per each million persons in its population compared to the DRC figure of 122 cases per million.
The tragically inept and chaotic response of the United States is evident in a comparison of the virus’ spread and mortality rate with the Congo’s (DRC). There have been 680 deaths in the U.S. per each million persons and 25,538 cases per million in stark contrast to the Congo’s loss of 3 persons per million to the virus and 122 cases per million Congolese. Even accounting for Congo’s challenges in tracking cases and deaths in remote areas and the country’s faulty data practices, the U.S.-Congo gap in the spread of the virus underlines crucial differences in the countries’ response to COVID.
Perhaps due largely to its experience with other deadly viruses, sub Saharan Africa was quick to respond to COVID. A March 30 statement by the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, pointed to the international cooperation and reliance on science as decisive in her country’s battle with the Ebola virus which took 5000 lives during her administration. Ms. Sirleaf described Liberia’s learnings with these words, “A mass mobilization of resources led by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the US followed. We defeated it together. As a result, today there are effective experimental vaccines and antivirals thanks to the collaboration of the best scientific minds around the world.” Three months after this statement, the Trump administration declared the U.S. would leave the W.H.O., the only global health agency created by the United Nations.
In summing up Congo’s effective response to the Ebola outbreak in the country’s northeast, also plagued by civil conflict, the W.H.O. director general emphasized the important role of non-governmental actors. “Engaging communities and influential figures, such as faith leaders and traditional healers, was critical. Communities should be respected as first responders, who can quickly detect cases and collectively work out how to isolate patients, even with minimal resources” Dr. Ghebreyesus wrote. The example set by the leadership and health staff of the Disciples of Christ of Congo is noteworthy. In the poorest province of the country, the DCC President Rev. Eliki Bonanga wrote three weeks after the first COVID case was detected on March 10 that the Church committed to “campaigning against COVID-19 through community education on what is COVID-19, how to contain it, how to avoid it, what to do in case the community identifies a suspect case.”
The Congo Disciples’ health services have greatly benefited from aid from partner churches in Germany and the U.S. International aid and cooperation were highlighted in former Liberian President Ms. Sirleaf’s analysis of her country’s success against Ebola. Commenting on Africa’s readiness to combat COVID, Ms. Sirleaf explained, “what most encourages today, is the opening up of expertise and the fact that knowledge, scientific discovery, equipment, medicines and personnel are being shared”. She concluded her message transmitted by BBC News on March 30 with this eloquent plea, “As we all hunker down in the next few weeks, I pray for the health and well-being of our global citizens, and I ask that everyone remember that our humanity now relies on the essential truth that a life well-lived is a life in the service to others.”