As of 12 October 2020, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had detected 10,851 cases of COVID-19 and recorded 276 deaths due to the disease. In addition to outbreaks of cholera, the Ebola virus, and measles, the country now has to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that “this latest crisis, whose socio-economic and health consequences will be felt for some time, is overloading systems of health care and essential services that are already struggling, particularly in the east of the country where armed violence and conflict continues to exact a heavy toll on the local population.” The World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that four in ten of DRC’s 100 millions people are food insecure, with 15.6 million suffering “crisis” or “emergency” hunger.
According to the UNHCR, following the fifth extension of the state of emergency on 4 July, 14 provinces are now affected by the virus, with notable numbers of cases in the eastern provinces of South Kivu (141 cases) and North Kivu (106 cases), which host refugees and internally displaced persons. UNHCR said that there were growing fears that COVID-19 may also reach refugee-hosting areas of northern DRC.
The UN Refugee Agency also reported that in early June, there were repeated incursions by the South Sudanese army into refugee-hosting areas in DRC despite border closures, leading refugees and locals to flee. On 17 and 18 May, around 45,000 people had attempted to flee towards the Ugandan border with the DRC shortly after deadly militia attacks on civilians in Ituri province. Many have been left unable to return to their homes and in consequence, on 1 July, Uganda agreed to temporarily open its borders. Approximately 1,500 asylum-seekers entered the country through Guladjo and Mount Zeu crossing points.
UNHCR reported that it was installing handwashing stations in refugee camps and IDP sites across DRC, while distributing soap and disinfecting community infrastructures. By 29 June, 3,125 handwashing stations had been installed across DRC (including 269 donated to authorities and 441 to health structures), over 102,000 people received soap, and 2,069 community infrastructures had been disinfected. UNHCR estimated that a total of 1.2 million refugees, internally displaced persons, and host community members had been reached by awareness-raising sessions on COVID-19 by 29 June. Following the DRC Government’s request to close displacement sites in Kalemie (Tanganyika province), UNHCR provided assistance for the voluntary return of a total of 9,003 people living in Kaseke and Kakomba displacement sites. More recently, the organisation reported that it had assisted authorities in establishing medical checkpoints and containment sites.
UNHCR also stated that the country currently hosts over half a million refugees – mainly from Rwanda, Burundi and the Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan. In South Ubangi’s Mole Refugee camp, further resources are required to ensure that 15,000 refugees from CAR have access to the minimum water requirement of 20 litres per person per day. UNHCR said this was “particularly important now, when, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, refugees and their host communities need potable water to protect them against endemic cholera and what is now the world’s longest running measles crisis.”
The ICRC stated that it had requested that DRC authorities reduce overcrowding in prisons and release vulnerable detainees who are serving a short sentence and are at greater risk from COVID-19 (i.e. those who are ill or old). DRC jails are among the world’s most overcrowded according to the UN, with inmates living in squalid conditions and meagre rations. In September 2020, the UN reported that 52 inmates at the Bunia prison had starved to death so far this year as a result of the government’s failure to devote enough funding. The prison operates at nearly 500% capacity. Malnutrition is reportedly common in DRC jails as food portions are allotted based on the facilities’ normal capacity, rather than their real population. The ICRC said that it had engaged in dialogue with prison and judicial authorities on respect for detainees’ rights and judicial guarantees, and monitored detainees’ treatment and conditions.
In a bid to alleviate overcrowding and protect prisoners from an outbreak of COVID-19, authorities have released certain detainees. On 14 August, 73 people detained at the Kalemie prison were released by a presidential decree. Another decree from 30 June led to the release of 79 people from the Kangbayi prison as well as the release of 129 detainees from the Bunia prison. On 14 May, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provided 4,000 face masks to the Ndolo prison and the World Health Organisation (WHO) installed two isolation tents within the Makala prison facility to care for ill detainees.
Many coronavirus cases have now been detected within the country’s prison system. The first case was identified in the Kayiti prison on 10 June and in response, the facility was isolated and movement to and from the facility was completely suspended. Yet, in August, a testing campaign in the Amuru prison revealed that 153 prisoners tested positive for the virus among the 205 prisoners. A staff member also tested positive and in consequence, the whole facility was confined during 28 days. Subsequently on 9 and 11 September, 76 prisoners at Kitgum prison and 30 others at the Moroto prison tested positive for the virus.
While authorities have taken certain measures to alleviate overcrowding in the country’s criminal prisons and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, the GDP has been unable to find reports indicating that authorities have adopted any measures to assist migrants. The GDP has also been unable to establish the extent to which detention facilities are used in the DRC as part of immigration enforcement policies or obtain any details about whether any COVID-19 related measures have been taken in the country to safeguard people who are in custody for immigration reasons, including as part of deportation proceedings.
- Worldometer, “Coronavirus Cases: DR Congo,” accessed on 12 October 2020, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/democratic-republic-of-the-congo/
- International Committee of the Red Cross, “ICRC Response to COVID-19 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” 29 July 2020, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/icrc-response-covid-19-democratic-republic-congo
- WFP, “With More Conflict and Covid-19 Deepening Hunger in the Democratic Republic of COngo, More Help is Needed to Save Millions of Lives,” 14 August 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/conflict-and-covid-19-deepening-hunger-democratic-republic-congo
- UNHCR, “Democratic Republic of the Congo: UNHCR Update on COVID-19 Response – July 2020,” 21 July 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/democratic-republic-congo-unhcr-update-covid-19-response-july-2020
- Radio Okapi, “Tanganyika: Libération des 73 Détenus à Kalemie,” 14 August 2020, https://www.radiookapi.net/2020/08/14/actualite/justice/tanganyika-liberation-des-73-detenus-kalemie
- Radio Okapi, “Nord-Kivu: 79 Détenus Libérés de la Prison Centrale de Kangbayi,” 23 July 2020, https://www.radiookapi.net/2020/07/23/actualite/
- F. Asante, “Ituri: Une Centaine de Détenus de la Prison Centrale de Bunia Libérés Par Grâce Présidentielle,” Actualite.cd, 19 July 2020, https://actualite.cd/index.php/2020/07/19/ituri-une-centaine-de-detenus-de-la-prison-centrale-de-bunia-liberes-par-grace
- L’Interview, “COVID-19: l’OMS Installe Deux Tentes à la Prison Centrale de Makala,” 19 May 2020, https://linterview.cd/covid-19-loms-installe-deux-tentes-a-la-prison-central-de-makala/
- E. M. Kambale, “More than 50 in Overcrowded DRC Prison Starve to Death,” Business Day, 15 September 2020, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/world/africa/2020-09-15-more-than-50-in-overcrowded-drc-prison-starve-to-death/
- The Independent, “Moroto Prison Sealed Off as 30 Inmates Test Positive to Covid-19,” 11 September 2020, https://www.independent.co.ug/moroto-prison-sealed-off-as-30-inmates-test-positive-to-covid-19/
- Daily Monitor, “Amuru Prison Closed as 153 Test Positive for Covid-19,” 23 August 2020, https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Amuru-prison-closed-as-153-test-positive-for-Covid-19/688334-5613010-14ay29vz/index.html
- WPF Staff Member Standing Behind Checkpoint, (Ben Anguandia, WFP, “With Conflict and Covid-19 Deepening Hunger in the Democratic Republic of Congo, More Help is Needed to Save Millions of Lives,” 14 August 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/conflict-and-covid-19-deepening-hunger-democratic-republic-congo)
- UNHCR, “Fact Sheet: DR Congo, August 2020,” 3 August 2020, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/details/79256