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A firsthand account: Supporting older people in the DRC during COVID-19

Anatole Bandu

I am the Country Representative of HelpAge DRC, a member organisation of the HelpAge network which partners with Age International. COVID-19 (coronavirus) could not have come at a worse time in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Most older people are still recovering and coming to terms with the loss of their sons, daughters and grandchildren from the Ebola outbreak that left over 2,200 people dead.

As a member of the CSOs (civil society organisations) consortium that were engaged by the government to help in the fight to end Ebola, we were on the verge of celebrating the defeat of what has been declared a deadly disease. But of course, COVID-19 has jolted all of that. It has cut short our impending joy.

Within two weeks from the time when the first case of coronavirus was declared, the country recorded 81 positive cases and seven deaths. Of the seven, four are older people. Our older people’s groups around Kinshasa, the capital city of the DR Congo are in panic since two of these deaths belonged to one of their groups.

Of great concern to HelpAge DRC right now are the 13 strict measures the government came up with on 18 March to curb the spread of coronavirus. These measures were put in place without consultation with stakeholders. For example, the project to provide unconditional cash transfers to older people has been blocked to curb gatherings of people. Normally, older people collect their cash manually as only a few have bank accounts. Life is becoming unbearable for older people and their families, even more so for families of people living with disabilities.

For example, early this week I received a call from the districts' committee of older people in Kinshasa (which comprises the Lukunga, Tshangu and Funa districts) asking for emergency help for 3,500 older people who live with chronic diseases and are most likely to become seriously ill if they are infected with COVID-19. They also face the risk of age discrimination, including in accessing healthcare, and have well documented and longstanding barriers to accessing humanitarian support and assistance. The cash project funded by HelpAge is closed now due to the restricted measures taken by the government. The committee members told me the situation of older people is getting worse. Their living conditions are critical. Most are living without food and lack wash kits at this time of the curfew.

In addition, older people living with chronic diseases have no means to access health facilities since public transport has been banned, the most affected older people are those who have Diabetes and high blood pressure. They have no means to hire private taxis to reach the hospitals where they normally collect medicine from. They do not get any form of support from the government, which is not surprising since the government acted without considering many factors at play. There is no humanitarian assistance. It appears as though COVID-19 has made everybody desert older people. They feel they have been left on their own. What is on the ground calls for nothing short of emergency assistance.

While it is easy for the outsider to think that the community approaches employed to combat Ebola could apply in Kinshasa, it is not so. It is difficult to take the same approach used to combat Ebola since the COVID-19 outbreak has not occurred in the same areas. To begin with, the incubation period of the two viral diseases presents different challenges. Ebola has an incubation period of anywhere between 2 and 21 days between infection and the onset of symptoms. However, unlike COVID-19, a person with Ebola is not contagious until symptoms appear. With COVID-19 the virus can be spread before people know they have it. Death rates from Ebola are much higher. Ebola was more visible and it was easy to communicate about the need for physical distancing. It is harder to explain that people need to stay away from people who don’t look sick. People might not take the need for physical distancing seriously. In terms of hygiene approaches, the same kits used for Ebola can be used to prevent COVID-19.

Kinshasa, the epicentre of COVID-19, is challenged in many ways. 97 per cent of its population has no access to clean running water. People rely on the dirty river Congo. A vast majority of the city has no sanitation facilities. It has no network of tarmacked roads and it is difficult to access people at risk.

Our humanitarian work before the pandemic has been focused on Benie, Bukavu and Goma. One of our main challenges is that Kinshasa doesn't have the linkages with community support systems and the administration that are usually developed during emergencies.

On a positive note, the government has agreed to our request to allow time for older people to get out of their homes, at least for some specific times, to look for food or any support they might need. As a result of this, we have now been given two days in a week when we are allowed to go out to shop.

As well as this, a team of HelpAge DRC, both here in Kinshasa and in our offices in Goma, has been set up to visit group leaders within the two cities to create awareness within older people using the messages sent by HelpAge International. This is all we can do for now. We tell them to pass the messages to their members to stay safe (avoid crowds and maintain a clean environment). It would be very useful if we could get alcohol-based sanitisers at this time since vast areas lack water, but we don't have the means to do so.

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Last updated: Jun 24 2020

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