Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), announced its first recorded case of COVID-19 on March 8. The response to the global pandemic since then has been confused, fractious, and skeptical.
One especially vocal skeptic was Nelemba Lemba, a Congolese MP and TV station owner. Lemba claimed that political elites had manufactured the panic over the virus in order to attract funds from international donors and steal public money.
This claim found a ready audience. Comforting theories about COVID-19 — that it is a minor illness, a disease of the “mundele” (an indigenous racial category that often includes South Asians and Chinese as well as white people), or simply does not like hot weather — remain popular in the city.
One reason for this receptivity was a distrustful attitude toward authority that the Congolese people have acquired through bitter experience. In the last two decades, multinational companies have acquired a whole series of national assets worth billions of dollars for a fraction of their real value, while important political families bestride economic networks of incredible scope.
The current national president, Félix Tshisekedi (known as “Fatshi”), “won” the election of 2018 in very dubious circumstances: leaks from the electoral commission itself, as well as reports from independent observers, appear to show that he came a distant second to the real winner.
Such problems are nothing new in the DRC. A long history of coercive insertion into the world system, with the most rapacious tendencies of contemporary global capitalism given free play, have made this culturally vibrant, mineral-rich country one of the poorest and most violent places on Earth.
After independence in 1960, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, fell victim to a CIA-engineered coup, and the coup leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, went on to rule for three disastrous decades with strong US support. In 1997, Mobutu was ousted from power, but the country then collapsed into a murderous regional war. The hemophiliac forms of accumulation that characterized Mobutu’s rule have continued.
Although GDP growth was strong for much of the period after 2002, the situation remains desperate for all but a tiny elite. In the financialized twenty-first-century capitalism of tax havens and vulture funds, the vast sums of money bleeding northward have actually increased since Mobutu’s departure.
This flood of money abroad has left the DRC’s economy and health infrastructure in tatters. Alongside COVID-19, the country currently has two epidemics in progress: an ongoing measles outbreak that had killed six thousand people by the start of 2020, and an Ebola crisis in the far east — the second largest in history, and not yet over, although it has abated a great deal.
These outbreaks interact with the heavy burden of endemic disease: in a region where malaria takes a heavy toll on the population annually, there is a strong tendency to confuse its initial symptoms of fever and malaise with those of diseases like Ebola or COVID-19, causing patients infected with the latter to present too late or not at all.
The violent nature of political authority has also sabotaged trust in public health interventions, whether by Congolese politicians or by international agencies. A widespread (and eminently rational) mistrust of the local authorities has greatly hampered attempts to combat the most recent bout of Ebola. The mafia-like business class in the towns of Beni and Butembo, which were at the epicenter of the outbreak, is especially culpable in this regard.
Kinshasa has been spared the worst of the DRC’s social catastrophe, whose full force has been felt in the country’s regions. However, it is a very big and very poor city. With a population of perhaps 13 million — there has been no official census in the DRC since 1984 — Kinshasa is certainly the poorest megacity in the world.
The city’s response to the global crisis, important enough in its own right, may also provide some clues about the ways in which much of humanity will confront COVID-19, in a world where catastrophic poverty and inequality are already pervasive.
Tussles over the status of the virus slowed government action by several weeks, but on March 18, Fatshi delivered a speech declaring a health emergency. He closed borders and banned social gatherings, including churches, schools, bars, places selling “nonessential” items, and some other workplaces, including certain factories.
The government also banned any other type of social event that would bring together more than twenty people, notably matanga — funeral wakes that can engage hundreds in weeks of all-night lamenting, drinking, and dancing. Fatshi announced that a full confinement (lockdown) of Kinshasa would be imposed very soon.
These decisions have been in force since March 19 and have created a tense mood in Kinshasa. Many argue that starvation will kill more people than the virus, and while the streets are emptier than normal, there have also been many attempts to carry on trading, especially in outlying districts.
The law is a space for negotiation here, with the police and the security services — themselves often very badly paid — seeking madesu ya bana (“beans for the children”) from proprietors to allow bars and traders to stay open.
The Kinois experience a particular kind of poverty: neither consistent wage laborers nor subsistence peasants, they resemble what Marx once called the “relative surplus population” — “surplus” not in Malthusian or ecological terms, but in terms of capital’s ability to exploit them consistently for a profit. If they are paid wages — in the city’s light industries, for example, or roadbuilding and construction — it is largely as day laborers, and such work is unreliable and intermittent.
Others are paid piece rates, filling sacks or breaking rocks. In all cases, the price of labor is pitifully low. It is a common sight to see children and old women making gravel for building sites by hand, using iron bars to bash large stones into small ones.
Others rely on the money earned as petty traders on the streets: buying products at depots and covering miles selling them on, hawking everything from baguettes, peanuts, and cigarettes to rotgut alcohol and knockoff petrol. One particular form of cheap alcohol, known as supu na tolo (“chest sauce”), is made in a factory linked to a prominent politician and sold at truck stops.
Other common subsistence activities include transport — offering rides on cheap Chinese motorcycles, or in dilapidated secondhand vehicles bought by middlemen in Dubai — and porterage — pushing material to and fro in hand carts.
Although the city is far from being self-sufficient in food, very large numbers of the urban poor work in small-scale agriculture. Again, these are not urban peasants. The maman bilanga (“garden mums”) who till the city’s vacant spaces are more like hyper-precarious market gardeners than subsistence farmers, selling on much of their crop within the city in exchange for other essentials.
Such farmers are precarious in part because their land is under constant threat from unscrupulous property speculators with links to the political class: like many cities of its economic level, Kinshasa has recently combined apocalyptic poverty with a speculative property boom, and small houses in the city’s downtown can sell for more than a million dollars.
Much of this is reminiscent of early capitalism elsewhere, from the putting-out systems of Europe in the nineteenth century to the sweat shops of East Asia. But there is also evidence that this time, it’s different. Such tendentially unemployed populations seem to be growing rather than shrinking.
The economist Dani Rodrik has identified an increasingly common pattern of “premature deindustrialization,” whereby low-GDP countries are shedding jobs even under conditions of economic growth — especially the kind of manufacturing jobs that have historically been associated with broad-based development.
Police and Thieves
The poor majority struggled but mostly complied with the government’s initial diktats, but a number of subsequent decisions have provoked open resistance. On March 24, the government announced measures to isolate the province of Kinshasa from the rest of the country, prohibiting movement in and out of the city.
This decision increased the sense of unease, as the capital relies on a daily stream of food from growers in the neighboring provinces of Bandundu and Bas-Congo. Bas-Congo also contains all of the DRC’s sea ports: Kinshasa is heavily reliant on imported staples, notably wheat and rice. Reports multiplied of vehicles carrying food and other essential items being stopped at the provincial border.
Confronting the folly of obstructing food imports, the authorities modified their initial decision, allowing drivers and crew carrying provisions to enter the city, but not passengers. Again, this posed problems, since the boundary line between “passengers” and “freight” is highly mutable in this part of the world. Vans transporting manioc will supplement their income by carrying the odd passenger perched on top, while travelers from the provinces will subsidize the journey by carrying kilos of plantains to sell or share in the capital.
Soon, the media carried reports of policemen taking bribes to allow passengers in and out of Kinshasa. The kerfuffle slowed the flow of food into the capital, and the price of goods has risen: it is hard to tell whether this is a direct result of the March 24 decree reducing supply or the product of a wider unease. Politically connected merchants are widely rumored to be hoarding staples for release later, when prices have spiked.
On March 26, the governor of Kinshasa, Gentiny Ngobila, announced his own set of measures. Ngobila proposed alternating periods of confinement and circulation, with the population confined for four days, then free for the following two days, and so on.
This was due to start on March 30, but prices rose within minutes of the governor’s address, and long queues sprang up outside banks and supermarkets. In Tshangu, a vast, slum-filled area in the city’s east where confinement promised imminent starvation, word went around that looting would begin on March 30. This was no idle threat: periodic bouts of looting by Kinshasa’s poor, especially the bana Tsangu (literally “children of Tshangu”), have marked epochal events in the city’s history.
Congo’s independence came after football supporters whose team had just lost clashed with colonial police who were trying to disperse a banned independence demonstration. In the rioting that followed, the air of implacable command cultivated by the Belgian colonizer over decades dissolved in the course of a few days. Citywide looting in the early 1990s also constituted a point of no return for the Mobutu regime.
Most recently, attempts by former president Joseph Kabila to extend his time in office fell victim to repeated rioting, which involved the looting of ruling-class assets in the districts. In this state of popular menace, the governor annulled his decision on March 29, and confinement has been delayed in most of the city.
“L’Hiérarchie, C’est Moi!”
As things stand, the only area under confinement is the central commune of Gombe, a quartier that corresponds with the former colonial ville blanche (“white city”), then, as now, the most affluent part of town. In an echo of the colonial city, only a select few carrying a pass are permitted to go past the roadblock into the downtown area.
This has led to a series of fights over who’s allowed in and who isn’t. The most prominent was an altercation between Governor Ngobila and police general Sylvano Kasongo, which was filmed and reached a wide audience.
In the clip, Ngobila, descending from his cortège, asks Kasongo why they are being held up. Kasongo replies that he is merely enforcing what “the hierarchy” told him. In a response typical of the DRC’s ruling class, Ngobila replies: “Who is the hierarchy? The hierarchy is me!”
The choice to isolate Gombe was ostensibly taken because more cases had been identified there. It does seem like a plausible point of entry for the virus, as a site where foreign aid workers and wealthy, well-traveled elites live and work. By now, however, the number of cases identified surely reflects where most tests have been carried out, not where the virus actually is.
Whatever the reality may be, the lockdown of affluent Gombe has strengthened the general Kinois view that COVID-19 only affects white people and the rich. It has also led some inhabitants of Gombe to flee their luxury apartments for “safer” parts of town, a dash greeted with widespread hilarity by the rest of the city.
On a more serious level, the government has created an organization called l’equipe de risposte contre le coronavirus (the coronavirus response team), comprised of appropriate experts and led by the virologist Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who previously spearheaded the response to the Ebola outbreak in the east. Even here, a series of conflicts have broken out that, in true Kinois style, are somewhat farcical, even as the country careers toward tragedy.
There have been a series of complaints about the makeup of the committee, which was selected by Professor Muyembe and is composed of biologists, epidemiologists, pharmacists, and physicians. Several politicians have argued that more of their number should be included in the team, while the pop star But Na Fillet — author of one of the better coronavirus cash-in records — identified a pressing need for more musicians on the committee.
Such a crush to “get in” on various national get-togethers has been a notable phenomenon in recent decades, when all sorts of hitherto unknown rebel groups, concerned “civil society” organizations, and “leaders of opinion” have materialized from thin air to demand a space at the table. They are mainly interested — or so a wider public assumes — in the per diem payment such events allocate to participants.
Professor Muyembe’s frequent media appearances have not been free from mishap. Muyembe had been closely involved in the use of an experimental vaccine in the fight against Ebola, and he announced that the DRC had been “chosen” as a site to test a new COVID-19 vaccine.
Just what Muyembe intended by this, beyond professional excitement, is not clear. For most of the population his statement, which followed hard on the heels of some loose talk by French doctors about fast-tracking virus tests on Africans, indicated a desire to use the Congolese as “guinea pigs.”
Rumors swirled that the government had received $45 million from the World Bank in exchange for the bodies of the poor as sacrifices. Muyembe then issued a “clarification,” assuring the Congolese people that a vaccine would be tested in the United States and Belgium first, while the health ministry denied any involvement in negotiating vaccine trials.
Elsewhere, the experimental use of the drug chloroquine has been controversial, but the DRC has few other options. This familiar and relatively cheap (if extremely unpleasant) medicine — well known in the DRC as a somewhat antiquated antimalarial — has been accepted as an important treatment against COVID-19. Chloroquine’s intensely bitter taste — it is a derivative of quinine — has led many here to believe they can self-medicate with Congo Bololo, a bitter but otherwise unrelated local remedy sold on the street.
Muyembe again stepped into political hot water when he accepted a donation of eight thousand boxes of chloroquine from Olive Lembe Kabila, wife of former president Kabila. The very rich and economically dominant ex-presidential family is massively unpopular in Kinshasa, and Joseph Kabila himself is widely believed to be a Rwandan Tutsi. In a story that fuses elements of an anti-imperialist critique with outlandish colonial-era racial conspiracy theories, Rwandan “nilotiques” are depicted as the accomplices of Western capital in an effort to pillage the DRC of its mineral riches.
As with many of the most dangerous fables of national grievance, there is an element of truth behind this. Since the mid ’90s, Rwanda’s RPF regime has been deeply implicated in the plunder and violence that has scarred the DRC’s eastern provinces. That regime has enjoyed strong backing in the West, with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair especially keen to act as cheerleaders.
In this context, popular wisdom asked how and when Mama Olive could suddenly find all this medicine. Many concluded that the boxes contained poison, dispatched by Rwandan Tutsis linked to her husband.
There is much about the government’s confused response, and the rumors and uncertainty among the citizenry, that is not so different from the experience elsewhere. Nevertheless, the Congolese situation is distinct. While it is often brutal, the country’s government probably lacks the infrastructure of repression needed to keep the urban poor in a state of very protracted lockdown, as has happened in India. The threat of riots in Kinshasa acts as a rough-and-ready popular veto over these kinds of imposition.
The country is resilient, and it has rolled with a series of terrible punches: AIDS was first identified in Kinshasa, but the DRC now has a rate of infection that is low by regional standards. Thirty years ago, the capital relied on the country’s far eastern provinces as its breadbasket. But with the collapse of the road network and the eruption of conflict blocking off that lifeline, Kinshasa’s neighboring provinces have adapted, and now supply most of the capital’s food.
Some other facts also give modest grounds for hope. The population is very young, with a median age of eighteen, a fact that may help it absorb the direct impact of the virus better than many countries. In the interior, many people travel infrequently and have been socially isolated long before COVID-19 came along.
But there is no denying the fact that the omens do not look promising. Kinshasa only has intensive-care capacity for a handful of cases; most of the country has none at all. Kinshasa is dependent on food imports, and the poor majority are very sensitive to changes in world food prices. The population has been adaptable, but if there are multiple price spikes in the coming months, there will surely be limits to such adaptation.
As global breadbaskets struggle with shortages of labor, and as chains of production and distribution falter, it seems likely that the DRC will be near the back of the queue for what is available. As Mike Davis has pointed out, the highest death tolls from the 1918 influenza pandemic occurred when the disease infected the chronically malnourished subjects of British India. Should the worst happen in the DRC, it won’t just be the Congo’s problem. You can’t control a highly infectious disease while letting it run rampant through half-starved megacities like Kinshasa.
In the 1960s, the DRC’s sabotaged and stillborn independence signaled the fact that new postcolonial states would not fundamentally alter the global imbalances wrought by imperialism and the capitalist world system. In the new century, the DRC is still the most vivid symptom of a global body politic that is profoundly diseased.