PHOTO: The dirt road between Aru and Bunia is a vulnerable place for travellers
Patricia and Peter Wyard were at their mission post in Aru, north-eastern DR Congo when coronavirus hit. After making the difficult decision to return home temporarily, they are now following developments closely from the UK. They plan to return to DRC as soon as circumstances allow.
Doctor Patricia works in the palliative care team in the Diocese of Aru’s health department, while Peter assists with theological education. They told us three stories that demonstrate the precarious position of DRC as the country stands on the brink of yet another crisis.
Up until very recently, there were only two known cases of Covd-19 in Ituri province, both in Bunia. It is absolutely necessary that corona-related illness is kept to a minimum. Patricia knows full well the lack of adequate PPE, hand sanitiser and available oxygen (only oxygen concentrators, when the generator is on) in Aru.
We heard from our colleague Robert that on Thursday 23 April, two lorry drivers coming from Uganda into Congo to deliver goods for the Durba mine, close to Aru, were tested at the Ugandan border. They were allowed to proceed by the Congolese border officials into Congo without their results being known. Their tests (sent off from the Ugandan border to Entebbe 500km away) returned positive, but by then they had made it well into Congo through Aru.
They had multiple local contacts and had spent two nights in DRC, possibly also seeing local sex workers, before they were finally tracked down. But what about all the people they had been in contact with? We understand the problems of contact tracing very well in the UK, so in Congo this will be even more difficult.
This is a grave situation. DRC was quick to order a ‘lockdown’ for its own population, in particular in Kinshasa. As a result, the number of Corona cases has very, very slowly crawled up. But freight is allowed to cross borders and these lorries may come from a very long way away – Kenya, Tanzania, etc – and their monitoring and follow-up is essential. That may be the weakest link in Africa: the detection and follow-up of the positive cases in traders and drivers. Speedy diagnosis is very important as it is difficult to keep those lorry drivers at the borders.
We pray for this coronavirus not to become too overwhelming in Africa, maybe not till after an effective virus is found, given that all the aid organisations warn already of famines on a biblical scale.
Our second, equally unsettling story is about the ongoing unrest in Ituri province by a rebel group called CODECO (Coalition des Démocrates Congolais) a tribal group which is not supported by all the members of that tribe but nevertheless strong enough to cause real havoc in the region.
CODECO is one of the many groups that causes unrest and real danger to the population. Little is known (but we suspect minerals) about how all these groups get funded, but their presence causes such terrible hardship.
Djugu is a town on the road between Aru and Bunia to the south. It’s a dirt road but an important route for transport of people and goods.
This was the scene of CODECO’s latest attack on Thursday 23 April, 13 people, including three children, lost their lives through gun shots or machete attacks. It is very much a tit-for-tat struggle, with the aim of CODECO, to our western minds, unclear. The Congolese army is not particularly present in the East of this vast country and is maybe not as effective as it could be after years of poor governance.
Finally, Patricia heard that one of the orphans the Palliative Medicine team looked after died, when he was taken back ‘to the village’ for traditional treatment after months of ill health and malnutrition, after his mother died when he was still being breast fed and he ended up being looked after by his 13-year-old sister.
We followed this boy a long time in his struggle from red on the malnutrition screen to nearly green, when he got yet another infection which set him back into the red.
Patricia never saw this boy smile: he had a serious little face and a moan she will never forget. Rest in peace, little one.
The three situations in different forms are being repeated all over DRC and need our prayer and divine intervention and courageous leaders.