In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country which was already struggling to contain the Ebola outbreak, measles and cholera, and whose health system remains weak, the coronavirus crisis has brought a new challenge. Faced with a pandemic which continues to devastate lives and livelihoods, the Church has adopted all government recommendations and repeatedly tells the faithful that the only way to avoid the rapid spread of Covid-19 is to observe the recommended preventive measures.
Sadly, DRC has also seen the first death of an African prelate from the virus. Mgr Gérard Mulumba, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Mweka in the province of Kasaï, died at the age of 82 on April 15. At the time of writing, more than 8,032 coronavirus cases have been reported across the DRC, including 189 deaths and 3,615 who have recovered.
Even the Church-run healthcare infrastructure, which is normally more reliable, has been overwhelmed. To make things worse, Congo’s deputy health minister recently told the public that coronavirus funds were being embezzled by a “mafia network” within the health ministry, following a partial strike by health workers in the capital, Kinshasa, in protest at not being paid their bonuses for several months.
The status quo in the Church has of course been shaken up by the changes, not least the decision by President Felix Tshisekedi to prohibit meetings of more than 20 people. The hierarchy decided to suspend the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which is at the heart of our Christian life. So was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which takes place every Thursday in pretty much every parish. Priests continue to celebrate Mass in private, and pray especially for an end to this pandemic.
Since Mass has returned, the sign of peace (which often includes hugging here) has been omitted. Hand sanitiser is available at the entrance to churches. Big funeral events are prohibited, which has struck a deep blow to the country’s traditions. Here burials can be “festive” affairs and major social events, and the ban has done much damage to the funeral industry, especially in Kinshasa.
As throughout the world, the economic consequences of the pandemic and the lockdown have been dire. President Tshisekedi has appointed a National Solidarity Fund, headed at Tshisekedi’s request by Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo. The loss of wages and livelihoods, and of Mass offerings and intentions as well as revenues from pastoral activities, have strongly affected the Church. The building of new parish churches has stalled.
Medical staff, including a great many religious Sisters, are paid according to the number of patients they treat. However, people are often reluctant to go to hospital for fear of being infected with the virus. Consequently some religious communities have suffered a drastic drop or even the disappearance of their income.
Finally, those who work in schools are supposed to receive an allowance from the pupils’ parents. Suffice to say that at this time of lockdown when schools are closed, this form of payment too has disappeared.
The question about DRC is always: Why should a country which God has spoiled with many natural resources find itself living on handouts? On June 30, DRC commemorated 60 years of independence, decades which have been marred by the horrors of war, political instability and corruption. The proclamation of the Gospel, that is, a call to faith and true discipleship, must continue to play a role in helping the Congolese to change and to build a more just and sustainable future together.