DRC Grapples with the Covid-19 Pandemic Shock

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reported its first Covid-19 cases in early March. On March 21, the minister of public health confirmed 23 cases and reported the country’s first coronavirus-related death, prompting the government to close the borders and airspace. In the capital, Kinshasa, authorities imposed restrictions on public transportation and limited the number of passengers on buses and in taxis.

As of July 21, DRC has carried out 33,862 tests, recording 7,432 cases and 194 deaths. The country’s weak public health infrastructure has hampered reliable reporting and adequate treatment options, and only one institution, the Institut National de la Recherche Biomédicale, has the capability to process tests. Meanwhile, Congolese citizens, for the most part, have ignored Covid-19 guidelines from the Ministry of Public Health. The sentiment in the street is that one ought to choose daily survival over fear of Covid-19. In addition to public attitudes, DRC’s response to the pandemic has been impeded by a weak economy, infighting between members of the ruling political coalition, reports of misappropriation of pandemic response funds, and continued insecurity due to armed conflict.

Q1: How has the government reacted to the pandemic?

A1: Soon after the first Covid-19 cases surfaced, President Félix Tshisekedi declared a state of emergency and convened a task force to issue country-wide guidelines. Schools and non-essential businesses were ordered to close. The governor of Kinshasa reversed a hasty decision to impose a city-wide lockdown just hours before it went into effect due to a public backlash. In a city where the majority of the 12 million people survive on day-to-day activities in the informal economy, the governor’s attempt to shut Kinshasa was sudden, arbitrary, and detached from reality. A lockdown in Kinshasa could result in citizens not being able to feed themselves. In addition, social distancing and other preventive measures would simply not be feasible for people living in crowded neighborhoods, with multiple people residing in the same space.

In the end, the Kinshasa governor imposed the lockdown only on the Gombe Commune. Gombe, the business nerve of the city, is home to government ministries and agencies, embassies and international organizations, and the residences of the political and business elites. Considering the early cases had been traced to world travelers, many of whom who live in Gombe, the authorities could justify the lockdown. The rest of the city continued with business nearly unimpeded, while hundreds of people commuted daily in and out of Gombe for work.

Q2: What is the economic cost for DRC?

A2: The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a tremendous blow to DRC’s economy. The World Bank warns the outbreak could trigger an economic recession in DRC (-2.2 percent growth) in 2020, stemming from a reduction in exports caused by the global economic downturn. In addition, the mineral resources-centered economy—plagued by chronic mismanagement, opacity, and corruption—has weakened due to the steady fall in commodity prices. Copper prices dropped by 25 percent at the onset of the pandemic, triggering a $5 billion revenue loss.

The local banking and financial institutions do not have the capacity to back the private sector. Without a clear state policy to inject funds into businesses and keep the economy afloat, it is anticipated that many hard-hit private enterprises will go bankrupt, a development that would devastate the economy. This situation is further exacerbated by the sizeable informal economy that has escaped state control and denied the national treasury critical tax revenues.

With limited foreign currency reserves, DRC has been overly dependent on foreign assistance, with little track record of initiatives to wean itself from this crutch. The $11-billion budget has been inadequate to meet the country’s needs on a good day. Forty to 45 percent of the budget is directed to the maintenance of a bloated bureaucracy and civil service, leaving few resources for the promotion and support of other critical sectors.

In April, the International Monetary Fund approved a $363.2 million loan to help DRC meet some of its pressing needs and absorb the shock. This is an important lifeline, but the money only serves as a stop-gap measure. More debt is not the answer. The uncertainty around the pandemic requires sound policies and long-term solutions.

Q3: Some governments have used the pandemic to tighten their hold on power and restrict opposition activity. Is this the case in DRC?

A3: Unlike other regional governments, the Tshisekedi administration has not restricted opposition activity. Instead, the political landscape, exacerbated by Covid-19, has been shaped by two notable developments: a simmering power struggle between the Common Front for Congo (FCC) and Heading for Change (CACH)—the groups that make up the ruling coalition—and the trial of Vital Kamerhe, the president’s ally and now former chief of staff, over embezzlement of public funds.

The Covid-19 crisis has thrust the FCC-CACH conflict into the open. The Parliament challenged the constitutionality of the state of emergency, triggering a pushback from Tshisekedi. He asserted ascendency over both chambers of Parliament with a Constitutional Court decision that vindicated the state of emergency. Tshisekedi has also encroached on the prime minister’s constitutional prerogatives by interfering in government policy-setting processes. Tensions remain.

In the past few months, DRC politics have also been influenced by the trial of Vital Kamerhe, which has dominated the airwaves, captivating DRC citizens, regional governments, and international observers alike. DRC’s high court sentenced Kamerhe to 20 years of hard labor and declared him ineligible to hold public office for 10 years after finding him guilty of corruption and embezzlement of close to $50 million worth of public funds. Kamerhe’s arrest and fall have spawned local conspiracy theories and raised questions about the balance of power within the coalition.

Q4: How will DRC emerge from this crisis?

A4: The pandemic has exposed the extent of DRC’s administrative dysfunction, the disregard for the social contract, and the weakness of leadership. These challenges will continue to affect the welfare of the Congolese long after the rest of the world recovers from the pandemic shock. In the meantime, the DRC government should focus on the following areas:

  • Rebuilding public health infrastructure. DRC has a track record of training doctors who eventually leave for higher-paid opportunities abroad. As DRC receives emergency financial support from donors, the government must invest in revamping its public health infrastructure in the short- and long-term. As donor countries grapple with their own emergencies and crises at home, foreign assistance funds may not always be available.

  • Prioritize transparency and accountability in management of resources. DRC is a resource-rich country with irresponsible political leadership that helps external predators to siphon resources with impunity and deny the national treasury revenues critical to national development. Civil society organizations should work with government institutions to develop and implement effective public expenditure tracking systems to help citizens hold their governments—both local and national—responsible. This is critical both in the immediate response to Covid-19 but also in the long term with regard to wider government spending patterns.

  • Promote the rule of law. Reports of misappropriation of Covid-19 response funds should be investigated, and if proven to be true, the perpetrators should be fully prosecuted. Impunity and a bloated bureaucracy have stalled the emergence of a functional state that would uphold the social contract between the population and the government. Only respect of the social contract and a commitment to good governance and the rule of law will lead to the type of reforms that prioritize the welfare of the citizens.

Unless these steps are taken in earnest, DRC will not recover from the Covid-19 shock anytime soon. The emergence of a functional state to guarantee the Congolese people’s well-being remains the responsibility of the government and society. There are no shortcuts to good governance.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is the senior adviser for Africa at the International Republican Institute and a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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