DR Congo faces major challenges in COVID-19 vaccine rollout | Africa | DW | 24.07.2021

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Africa

DR Congo faces major challenges in COVID-19 vaccine rollout

The Democratic Republic of Congo is struggling to vaccinate its population amid growing cases of COVID-19. Skepticism, misinformation and poor infrastructure have forced the country to discard thousands of expired doses.

A nurse injecting a male patient

High vaccine skepticism and mistrust have led to low levels of vaccination in DR Congo

Almost every day, there are huge traffic jams in front of the district hospital in Goma, a major city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Cars, motorcycle cabs and pedestrians clog the road as friends and relatives come to pick up the deceased to bury them. For several weeks, an increasing number of COVID-19 patients have been among the dead in the eastern province of North Kivu.

Stephane Hans Bateyi is in charge of all vaccination campaigns for the provincial government. The doctor says the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano in May is partly to blame for the uptick in COVID-19 deaths.

"It was predictable," Bateyi says. "After the volcanic eruption, everyone abandoned hygiene measures while fleeing to Sake, Rutshuru and Butembo. So the disease spread on a large scale."

Doctor Stephane Hans Bateyi

Doctor Stephane Hans Bateyi is worried that DR Congo faces a critical situation

The Democratic Republic of Congo recorded more than 46,000 COVID-19 cases by mid-July. The real numbers are expected to be significantly higher. That's because there's been little testing so far.

According to official statistics, 1,018 people have died from the disease so far. The victims include politicians, professors and businessmen. The province of North Kivu has the most patients in the country — more than 4,000 — after the capital, Kinshasa.

Hospitals are running out of oxygen, masks, gloves and protective capes. Doctors and aid workers say rich countries, which are hit by the coronavirus as well, are providing far less aid than they did during the Ebola outbreak three years ago.

Jabs exceed shelf life

But the coronavirus vaccine supplied to the central African country has not been used in many places. Congolese authorities have had to destroy large quantities because the jabs have exceeded their expiry dates.

Under the global COVAX scheme for poorer countries, Congo received 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for its 90 million inhabitants in early March. After a few weeks, the government handed over 1.3 million of these to other African countries when it became evident that not all the doses would be used in time.

But poor infrastructure wasn't the only reason the vaccination campaign was delayed in the vast country. DR Congo's health minister, Jean-Jacques Mbungani, says there were doubts about the safety of the vaccine.

"There have been concerns about AstraZeneca at the international level. There has been talk of the risk of thrombosis," he said

Expired AstraZeneca vaccine

DR Congo has destroyed thousands of expired doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine because of fears and doubts surrounding the jab

Indeed, in very rare cases, blood clots can occur in the brain, especially in young women. That prompted Denmark to stop vaccinations with AstraZeneca's shots. And in Germany, too, the vaccine didn't exactly fly off the shelves because many people wanted only the Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer jabs.

Deep mistrust and vaccine skepticism

Large parts of the population in DR Congo remain opposed to taking vaccines against the coronavirus which has resulted in a complete failure of the campaign.

A survey of 15 countries by the African Union shows that many Congolese are more skeptical and less well-informed about the coronavirus than other Africans.

Tuver Wundi, editor-in-chief of the public radio station in Goma, sayssocial media are partly to blame.

"We know that there was a lot of toxic misinformation. Everyone thought they would be used as guinea pigs and people were afraid and thought they would die." Wundi said one virulent rumor was that those who had been vaccinated would live for only two years.

Medical experts and activists are demanding that the population be better informed, especially since mistrust has further increased after a man in the capital, Kinshasa, actually died following his vaccination.

Bateyi has promised that the case will be investigated and the result will be published. He said it is unclear so far whether the man died as a result of the vaccine or of something else.

Congo is in a critical situation, says chief medical officer Bateyi. Vaccine skepticism means that few people have been vaccinated, he said. Worse, the country has no vaccine supplies anymore at a time when the delta variant is driving up death rates.

Doctor Justin Hangi

Doctor Justin Hangi shows the COVID-19 emergency ward in his hospital

"When you see the numbers, we haven't even administered 100,000 doses so far. The rest have now expired and need to be destroyed.”

By that calculation, the Democratic Republic of Congo is discarding about 300,000 doses — more than in the many other African countries that also found themselves with more vaccines than they could inject. Malawi, South Sudan, Liberia, Mauritania, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Comoros have all also destroyed shots in large numbers.

Expats willing to get the jab

Unlike many Congolese, several foreigners in Goma have been happy to be vaccinated. Many well-paid employees of international aid organizations and the United Nations work in the conflict-hit region of eastern Congo.

British aid worker Emma Camp admits she was hesitant at first in taking the jab since the doses from the COVAX initiative are supposed to benefit poor people.

Aid worker Emma Camp

British aid worker Emma Camp shows her vaccination certificate

"When we were told that they were going to expire and either be destroyed or sent back, at that point we decided we'd take them, Camp said. "It's better that we take them than they get destroyed."

Doctor Justin Hangi says he would have liked more Congolese to come to his hospital for vaccinations. Still, he was pleased with the number of foreigners. "Personally, I was happy to vaccinate white people. The more they get vaccinated, it could also motivate our population to get the shot," Hangi says.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has now requested another 5 million vaccine doses from the COVAX initiative. No one knows yet whether vaccines from Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer will also be supplied. The first doses are expected to arrive at the end of the month.

Radio journalist Tuver Wundi, who has already been vaccinated twice, hopes the campaign will get off to a better start this time. "We cannot afford to waste international donations again that people really need," he said. 

This article has been translated from German.