Ongoing insecurity in eastern DRC could derail coronavirus containment

DRC ADFBy: Kelsey Kerouac, Senior Analyst, Subsaharan Africa Section
Analytical Topic: Sunni militant groups in the Eastern DRC

The conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could interfere with  the government’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. A report by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warns that the latest violence in the eastern DRC could have serious consequences for the fight against coronavirus. It can be stated with high confidence that an increase in displaced population numbers, due to violence, will significantly increase the spread of COVID-19 in the DRC.

There are over 160 different rebel groups active in the eastern DRC1. On November 1, 2019, the Congolese army launched a large-scale military offensive to combat the 20,000 armed fighters and regain stability in the region2. In the past two weeks, recent attacks in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces displaced more than 35,000 individuals3. In total, more than 5 million people remain displaced in the country due to violence and instability4. On March 10, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the DRC5. As of April 23, there have been 359 confirmed cases, and 25 deaths related to COVID-196. That number is predicted to significantly increase in the coming weeks. According to frontline healthcare workers in Kinshasa, medical teams do not have enough equipment, and can only test about 80 people a day for COVID-195. Congolese civilians have expressed increased frustration with the government4. They feel that the government has failed to communicate accurate information and an effective plan in response to the pandemic.

On April 17, the UNHCR released a report stating, “attacks [in the eastern DRC] hamper humanitarian access, hinder assistance to desperate displaced people, and disrupt vital coordination on COVID-19 prevention and sensitization.3” The report goes on to state that the UNHCR is concerned that insecurity and diminishing humanitarian access will generate major obstacles for the country because they are  under-resourced in regards to health services. The majority of cases have occurred in the capital city, Kinshasa. Due to recent attacks and instability other areas of concern include the North Kivu and Ituri provinces. The key figures in this report are the UNHCR, President Felix Tshisekedi, and Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe —the lead doctor in the 2018 Ebola outbreak, and currently in charge of the COVID-19 response. To date, the UNHCR has worked to establish 14 humanitarian committees, set up temperature screening at entry points of camps and transit centers, installed 365 hand-washing stations, and distributed 23,000 soap bars3. The UNHCR has taken steps to aid the Congolese government in containing the spread of COVID-19.

This article was reported due to the increased number of COVID-19 in the DRC. The development shows that the United Nations Refugee Agency has deployed prevention measures to help protect the five million displaced people and refugees in the country5. This development is significant because it shows how violence in the eastern DRC creates increased challenges for the government and humanitarian aid when dealing with the pandemic. It is highly likely that the increased number of displaced individuals could accelerate the spread of COVID-19. Many areas and sites hosting displaced people are overcrowded, and make it difficult to implement physical and social distancing. Currently, no cases of COVID-19 infection have been reported among refugees and asylum seekers in the DRC3. The total number of cases in the DRC will significantly grow if the virus becomes present in a camp. The government and UNHCR need to apply lessons learned from the 2018 Ebola outbreak. During the Ebola outbreak, parts of the outbreak zone experienced violence and forced health workers to flee and not treat civilians7. From the Government’s perspective they must act to regain stability in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UNHCR has provided resources to aid their response. From the perspective of the active militant groups, health epidemics can cause distrust between civilians and the Congolese government. Vulnerable areas become targets for the rebel groups to carry out attacks and develop strongholds. These events also have significant implications on the United States. The International Development Association (IDA) of the World bank was responsible for the $47 million in support to the DRC8. The United States holds 10.46 percent of the voting power in the IDA8.  On March 31, The United States also provided $6 million in aid for the Democratic Republic of the Congo9. This was to provide health-related support, supplies, and to improve water and sanitation activities. The stability of the DRC has an impact on US investment in the region.

It can be stated with high confidence that an increased number of displaced individuals, due to violence, will significantly increase the spread of COVID-19 in the DRC. The reports analyzed can be evaluated with high confidence. The report came from the United Nations Refugee Agency website. This report is reflective of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch, at a press briefing at the Palace of Nations in Geneva. The information is also supported by reports from the US Embassy website and the World Bank. The Congolese government and UN must work to protect civilians at high-risk during this pandemic. This development has impacted our overall evaluation by focusing on the impacts of COVID-19. Violence in the eastern DRC will likely increase the spread of COVID-19. This leaves the region vulnerable to more attacks by rebel groups. Given the recent developments with COVID-19, it can be stated with high confidence that militant groups will continue to exploit vulnerable populations in the eastern DRC, and hamper the response to the pandemic.