Denis Mukwege: Africa’s COVID-19 figures low but vigilance needed

Nobel laureate involved in DRC’s coronavirus fight urges Kinshasa to make testing kits available across country.

Denis Mukwege
Denis Mukwege received the Nobel Peace Prize 2018 for his efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war [File: Lise Aserud/EPA]

Testing kits need to be distributed evenly across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to effectively fight the new coronavirus, Dr Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist and co-winner of 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in helping female victims of rape, has said.

Speaking from his hometown of Bukavu in the DRC’s South Kivu province, Mukwege, who coordinates the regional response to the coronavirus pandemic, praised the national efforts to contain the virus but called for continued vigilance.

He identified the lack of testing capacity outside the capital, Kinshasa, as a major challenge in the battle against the highly contagious virus and raised concerns that if numbers increase, cities such as Bukavu may not be able to cope due to a shortage of facilities and testing kits.

To date, Kinshasa remains the epicentre of the outbreak in the DRC, with more than 1,000 confirmed infections and 40 related deaths. Across the country, 1,455 cases have been recorded and 61 deaths.

Al Jazeera spoke to Mukwege about the efforts to tackle the pandemic, the quest for a vaccine and the coronavirus-related risks faced by the victims of sexual violence. Excerpts of the interview have slightly been edited for clarity and brevity.

Al Jazeera: You are a key member of an official committee overseeing the COVID-19 fight in South Kivu. What have you learned so far?

Denis Mukwege: In this role, I have realised that there are many strategies adopted in different countries in the world, but there are also strategies that may not work in our context.

It is very important to study our context to adapt our response to the realities of our province and, above all, highlight the imperative need to prevent the spread of the pandemic and adopt all the measures necessary to prevent this spread.

Al Jazeera: Could these efforts be transferred to the rest of DRC and across Africa?

Mukwege: We have seen how the pandemic has evolved in different countries in different ways. For me, the most important thing is to find local solutions adaptable to different environments.

For the moment, Kinshasa is the most affected city in the DRC and, as I said, the response to the pandemic will be very different in a different environment.

For example, Kinshasa is a megalopolis that is home to millions of people, so the strategy must be quite different.

Al Jazeera: What challenges are you facing in the fight against the virus in Bukavu compared to Kinshasa?

Mukwege: The major problem we face in Bukavu is the capacity of testing. We believe our best preventative measures against the virus are: testing, identifying, isolating all the cases and placing them in quarantine.

These are the best strategies for fighting and preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Unfortunately, for the moment, we do not have the ability to test.

Our fear is that if the cases grow, it will be even more difficult to manage.

Al Jazeera: How is your collaboration with the central authorities?

Mukwege :  We have a positive relationship with Kinshasa. Today, it is thanks to INRB Kinshasa (National Institute for Biomedical Research Kinshasa) that we obtained the results of the cases here in Bukavu.

So our collaboration is positive but I believe it could be reinforced by distributing the new test kits to Bukavu and all the provinces, so that all the provinces have the testing capacity and everything is not centralised.

DRC Child
A health worker checks the temperature of a child amid the coronavirus outbreak in Goma [Olivia Acland/Reuters]

Al Jazeera: In your opinion, what more must be done to fight COVID-19 in Bukavu, the rest of DRC and Africa?

Mukwege: I believe it is very, very important that the DRC, and even the rest of Africa, remains vigilant even though we have a lower number of cases [compared to other parts of the world].

Several hypotheses have been made about these numbers, but I do not think we should think that these numbers are just a coincidence.

It must be said that for many African countries, the DRC is viewed as a measure of prevention for the virus.

We deployed some prevention measures, even in places such as Bukavu before the first case of coronavirus. We are doing a good job and we must recognise this work.

If we do not remain more vigilant, unfortunately, we risk experiencing an exponential increase in cases, and we will not cope due to the fragility of our health system.

Al Jazeera:  Are victims of sexual abuse facing any particular risks amid the pandemic?

MukwegeVictims of sexual violence experience stigmatisation and are often rejected by the community. For this reason, they often live in poverty and are extremely vulnerable.

In such a situation, catching the coronavirus will render them increasingly poorer and vulnerable than the people who are already integrated into society and who have the capacity to earn a living and are in good health.

We are very, very afraid. We know that they are more vulnerable if they are infected by the coronavirus.

Al Jazeera: Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe [DRC’s top microbiologist in charge of the country’s fight against COVID-19] said recently that DRC would be a candidate country for vaccine trials which caused public uproar. Is this the right move?

Mukwege: It is logical that we are conducting tests. However, it makes sense that if the vaccine is to be tested, it should start where there are more infections, not in Africa where there are fewer cases.

You can understand why the issue provoked a lot of uproar in Africa, because if, for example, we asked to test the Ebola vaccine in Stockholm or Oslo, the Swedes and the Norwegians would find it abnormal to start testing this vaccine in a place where there is no Ebola.

The COVID-19 vaccine is important, but it makes sense to start testing it where the virus is more widespread today.

Al Jazeera:  Dr Muyembe later clarified that the vaccine would be trialled in the DRC only after trials in other hard-hit countries. Can you reassure the Congolese and Africans that they will not be used as guinea pigs?

Mukwege: If our approach is logical, people will understand. If not, we actually open the door to speculation, which does not help in the efforts to understand the virus.

Al Jazeera:  Do you have a message about the fight against COVID-19 in Bukavu and the rest of DRC?

Mukwege: I would like to tell all Africans that it is very important that we know that Africans can understand and find endogenous solutions to our problems.

We have seen very well during this pandemic period that we have young people who can undertake [the mission to fight the virus] and who have innovative ideas.

It is very, very important that we can put our capacities at the service of African countries.

Source: Al Jazeera