GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Alphonsine Mwasi thought COVID-19 was “fake news.” Her family ignored the government’s curfew orders, keeping their bar-restaurant, Yasolo, filled and open late in Goma’s Katindo district, just as they had for 15 years.
But on a Friday night in July, her husband suddenly had trouble breathing. At the hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was put on a ventilator. Two weeks later, the 51-year-old was gone — leaving his widow, seven children and a $1,500 bill for his hospitalization and burial.
“He passed away and left me on my own,” Mwasi says, sobbing. “If I had known, we would have had the vaccine and it might have saved his life.”
In the pandemic vaccination race, Africa has fallen far behind — with DRC bringing up the rear. Less than 0.05% of the country’s 92.4 million people were fully vaccinated as of October 24, compared to 5.6% of the African population and 38% of the world, according to Our World in Data, a project by the United Kingdom nonprofit Global Change Data Lab.
As Congolese clamor to get their shots, their frustration is compounded by the bitter knowledge that many forfeited their chance to get vaccinated months ago.
When DRC recorded its first COVID-19 case in March 2020, misinformation and rumors spread faster than the disease itself. In Goma, capital of North Kivu province in the eastern part of the country, unmasked crowds continued to socialize, confident that the coronavirus only threatened Asia and Europe — and sounded far less deadly than the Ebola outbreak they had survived in 2018.
Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC
Congolese fears of the virus and trust in vaccines were both low when more than 1.7 million AstraZeneca doses arrived in March 2021 through COVAX, a partnership between the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, UNICEF and the World Health Organization. The country’s health authorities postponed launching a vaccination campaign while awaiting further studies on side effects reported in other countries.
By the time shots began April 19, the public had grown even more mistrustful, stoked by rumored side effects of sterility and life-threatening complications. Concerned that the shots would go to waste before their June expiration date, the government returned 1.3 million doses, which were then reallocated to Angola, Ghana, Central African Republic, Madagascar and Togo.
Then came the delta variant, ripping through DRC this summer, with Goma at the outbreak’s epicenter. The seven-day average of new cases jumped from 92 on June 1 to 369 on June 20, according to government data published by the United States Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
As hospitalizations and deaths soared around them, many skeptics suddenly changed their minds — but found themselves out of luck.
“I’m now aware of how dangerous COVID-19 is after two of my buddies have recently died from the disease,” says Julien Fataki, a taxi driver who had previously believed that the vaccine’s rumored side effects were a bigger threat.
After months of anxiety every time he picked up a new passenger, while knowing that his two younger sisters depended on his income, he got his first shot in September.
Graphic by Matt Haney, GPJ
DRC was not alone in its trust issues. Other African countries, including Malawi, South Sudan and South Africa, also rejected hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses earlier this year due to concerns about expiration dates and effectiveness against local variants.
But in a 15-country survey conducted by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention between August and December 2020, Congolese respondents had expressed the lowest levels of confidence in the vaccine. Responses also varied by region; only 53% of adults in North Kivu province said they would get vaccinated, compared to 85% of their peers in Kasai Occidental, another province.
With demand from DRC residents finally surging by the end of June 2021, the country ran through its reduced stockpile and had to halt vaccinations on July 11, says Dr. Stéphane Hans Bateyi, who coordinates the WHO’s Expanded Program on Immunization in North Kivu province.
At a July 15 press conference in Goma, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, general director of the National Institute of Biomedical Research, urged North Kivu residents to take greater precautions to avoid getting sick while the country scrambled to procure more donations.
“We are going to reinforce screening and management and we really ask the population to respect the barrier gestures,” he said. “And if the vaccines are available, [you should] not hesitate. Go and get vaccinated quickly. That’s what saves, that’s what protects.”
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The vaccination campaign resumed in mid-August with a donation of more than 51,000 AstraZeneca shots from the United Kingdom, followed in September by 250,000 Moderna and 250,380 Pfizer doses from the U.S. Citing an anticipated 4 million additional Pfizer doses and 26 million single-shot Johnson & Johnson doses, the country aims to vaccinate 25% of its population by the end of this year, says Jean-Jacques Mbungani, minister of Public Health, Hygiene and Prevention. Priority will be given to health workers, people over age 55 and those with conditions such as chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.
Vaccinations also are now in demand among DRC’s COVID-19 survivors, who have made a dramatic shift from fearing the vaccine to fearing the threat of reinfection.
After experiencing shortness of breath and testing positive in late June, Farida Nabintu spent two weeks on a ventilator. The 48-year-old survived the ordeal, but the experience left her with ongoing health complaints and a $250 hospital bill — more than double her monthly salary as a shopkeeper.
“All I can say is that I was very ill and still suffer from lasting effects of COVID-19,” she says, adding that she has now been vaccinated.
As for Mwasi, who lost her husband and business partner, she is still waiting for her turn — and urging friends and family to learn from her family’s tragedy.
“I’ve seen how fast this disease can kill, which is why I’ve stopped listening to all the false rumors about the vaccines,” she says. “I’ll be first in the line to get the jab.”