The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has faced a long period of protracted conflict, situated in a part of Africa that at one point in time has faced multiple conflicts or genocides, making the region highly volatile (Buscher, 2018: 194). The Kivu provinces in the Eastern DRC are facing a protracted armed conflict that has been widely reported on and has also been discussed on Bliss (see this article, this one, and this one).
As part of a research project hosted at ISS called ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict‘(Discord), we conducted a brief study of COVID-19 responses in the DRC, trying to find out what the responses were and how these were viewed and experienced on the ground. We conducted desk research and interviews with Congolese living and working in the Eastern DRC and the Kivus. We found that the intersection of the ongoing conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to great uncertainty in the region that people have sought to counter in their own ways.
Besides the prevailing economic situation as a result of violent conflict, the DRC has also experienced a new outbreak of communicable and highly infectious diseases, like its tenth Ebola outbreak in 2018, (see this WHO news article) as well as measles, yellow fever and, most recently, the outbreak of COVID-19, which occurred amidst the worst Ebola outbreak on the continent at the time (Mobula et al., 2020: 3). With the coinciding occurrence of COVID-19 and Ebola and an ongoing conflict, many Congolese families and miners feared the loss of their livelihoods and were at a greater risk of falling further into poverty due to dwindling incomes and severe health risks.
Following the recording of the first COVID-19 case (GARDAWORLD, 2020) on 10 March last year, on 24 March the DRC government announced a state of health emergency, declaring a nationwide lockdown to be observed in all of the country’s 11 provinces. Since then, the lockdown has been extended five times by the national assembly, with various forms of preventive measures introduced (Atlantic Council, 2020). The lockdown measures have immensely affected mining activities in the DRC (IPIS, 2020) a country where residents rely heavily on income from the mining sector. According to a report by the European Network for Central Africa (EurAc), insecurity in the mineral supply chain due to the outbreak of COVID-19 has had an impact on the Congolese economy in general, with the country preparing for a potential catastrophic economic downturn in the mining sector (Business and Human Rights Resource Center, 2020).
Mining activities in the Kivus and the Eastern DRC are conducted in person, with a strong reliance on human or person-to-person interaction. Thus, with the introduction of preventive measures, the livelihoods of miners and people living in Eastern DRC have been negatively impacted, as these preventive measures according to respondents run contrary to the somewhat informal practices in the DRC, particularly in the mining sector. Some prevention measures introduced by the government included the prevention of the movement of people, the closing of borders, and the limitation of legal mining activities, which forced small-scale miners to cease their operations that provided them with incomes necessary to survive.
One of the respondents participating in the research stated that with no definite time of earliest recovery in the mining sector, there is increasing anxiety and fear amongst miners and people living in the Kivus of little chance of a swift economic recovery as the situation moves from a short-term health crisis to a prolonged economic downturn.
In the Kivus, some areas such as Biholo, Nalucho and Kalehe have suspended mining activities, while in other sites artisanal miners continue to work amidst strict guidelines and awareness campaigns about the containment of COVID-19 by different civil society organizations. However, the situation is far from ideal. It was also highlighted by respondents that the closure of mining activities affects the wider population in the Kivus because many people rely on the income from the mines.
Defying lockdown measures to counter anxiety
These economic impacts have caused distress among families, miners, and people living in the Kivus. As a coping mechanism, the population in the Kivus find social gatherings important (although these gathering are not permitted) as a form of mental support. According to four of the six respondents interviewed for this study, families and residents living in Eastern DRC and the Kivus meet in what they referred to as ‘secret bars’ operating undercover. These bars usually appear closed or isolated from the outside, but are booming inside. Respondents also stated that most of the friends/or families meeting inside these ‘secret bars’ have a mutual agreement, as these gathering places remain secret to those outside the trust circles. These gatherings involve the sharing of drinks and friendly conversation. It is considered a way to handle anxiety that comes with uncertain times, including the current state of the Congolese economy.
A major risk factor posed by this form of coping mechanism is that it makes the population more vulnerable to COVID-19 and increases the risk of widespread COVID-19 transmission due to increased social interaction. Yet people felt that they had to defy lockdown measures to cope and were willing to take the risk. Consequently, social gatherings still take place, serving an important function in a time of economic precarity and great uncertainty. This form of coping may be the lifeline for many in the Eastern DRC and elsewhere, and its value should not go unrecognized.
Atlantic Council. 2020. “Shaping the global future together.” Accessed 25 July 2020 https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/about/
Büscher, K., 2018. “African cities and violent conflict: the urban dimension of conflict and post conflict dynamics in Central and Eastern Africa.” Journal of Eastern African Studies 12 (2): 193-210.
Business and Human Rights Resource Center. 2020. “Mining minister warns against the social and economic impact of mine closure during the COVID-19 pandemic.” https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/drc-mining-minister-warns-against-the-social-and-economic-impact-of-mine-closures-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/
GARDAWORLD. 2020. “DRC: authorities declare state of emergency March 24/3.” https://www.garda.com/crisis24/news-alerts/326271/drc-authorities-declare-state-of-emergency-march-24-update-3
IPIS. 2020. “The impact of COVID-19 on the artisanal mining sector in Eastern DRC.” https://ipisresearch.be/publication/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-artisanal-mining-sector-in-eastern-drc/
World Bank. 2020. “World Population: DRC.” Accessed on 16 June 2020 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=CG-CD
Mobula, L. M., H. Samaha, M. Yao, A. S. Gueye, B. Diallo, C. Umutoni, J. Anoko, J. P. Lokonga, L. Minikulu, M. Mossoko, and E. Bruni, 2020. “Mobilizing the COVID-19 response in the DRC.” Accessed on 23 June 2020 https://www.path.org/articles/mobilizing-covid-19-response-drc/