Fieldset
COVID-19: Debunking myths and quelling fears in DRC

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, MSF health promoter Sabrina and her team are working to ensure people get the right information about COVID-19 – helping to stop rumours and the virus itself from spreading

An MSF staff member hosts a COVID-19 health promotion training and information session with a group of volunteer community healthcare workers in the village of Kiziba, North Kivu province, DRC.

“Corona is just another way for the government to kill us since Ebola didn’t work.”

“All white people are infected with corona.”

“This is just another way for NGOs and the government to make money.”

“We can’t wash our hands. We have no water. We have no soap. How can we protect ourselves?”

“Can I catch coronavirus from riding a motorbike?”

“The virus doesn’t affect Africans, only Europeans.”

I write down all of the questions and thoughts I hear from people in my notebook and try to answer their concerns as best I can. Any questions I can’t answer, I promise to find an answer and come back to them soon.

COVID-19 is complicated around the world, but in countries like the DRC the challenges are exacerbated by persistent extreme poverty, instability, conflict and a healthcare system that is barely functioning.

I am working in Goma as a health promotion activity manager, and my team and I are holding an information session for a group of volunteer community health workers. We are sitting in an empty classroom that has no floors, and wooden benches that we are perched on – distancing ourselves as much as possible.

It is the middle of March and COVID-19 has now arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

People are filled with questions and concerns, and as the health promotion team, it is our job to engage with the community, to provide them with accurate information and most importantly to listen to them and to hear their concerns.

First Ebola, now COVID-19

The arrival of COVID-19 in the DRC came just as the Ebola epidemic – which has killed 2,200 people since 2018 – was on the verge of being declared over. This was before more Ebola cases emerged in the country on April 10.

Many Congolese, particularly those in the Ebola-affected areas, they tell us the timing is suspicious – is COVID-19 just another disease created to kill them?

Is this a political tactic? Is this just another way for NGOs and the government to make money?

It’s understandable why people are sensitive to rumours or distrustful. The term “Ebola-business” has become commonplace now after people saw huge amounts of money and resources flowing into their region purely for the Ebola response.

Yet Ebola was only one of many emergencies, with the country also dealing with the world’s worst measles outbreak, malaria, ongoing conflict and displacement.

This led to a perception amongst many people that Ebola was a business to make money while the actual urgent needs of the population were ignored.

The danger of rumours

Managing these rumours and suspicions has become a major part of my job. The spread of false information in the form of rumours is dangerous for Congolese and NGOs alike.

Downplaying the severity and reality of the COVID-19 by believing it to be a manmade political tactic will result in people not following the prevention measures laid out by the authorities, leading to higher mortality and potential backlash and violence.

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MSF staff hold a COVID-19 health promotion training and information session with volunteer community healthcare workers in the village of Nzule, just outside Goma in North Kivu province, DRC.
MSF staff hold a COVID-19 health promotion training and information session with volunteer community healthcare workers in the village of Nzule, just outside Goma in North Kivu province, DRC.

Addressing these rumours is a careful balance of listening to their views and respecting their beliefs, and gently correcting inaccuracies.

Through these sessions with the community, we have learned that the main concerns of community members have less to do with contracting the actual virus and more to do with the threat of a government-imposed lockdown and the incapability of the current health system to care for them.

“So many people are dying in Italy, where they have good hospitals. How will we manage here when there are no hospitals?”

“We cannot stay in our houses, we will starve.”

Overcoming fears

Their fears are valid – the reality the Congolese are facing is severe and with potentially deadly consequences that go beyond the virus.

Our discussions with community members have also made us aware of a growing fear of health centres – people are avoiding them for fear of catching COVID-19 and health care workers are scared of treating incoming patients.

This is why proactive health promotion is so important during this time – people need answers to their questions from a source that they trust. 

“Can I still go to the hospital if I have malaria?”

“Won’t I get infected with corona if I go to the hospital where there is a confirmed case?”

“Is it safe to touch the bodies of people who have died from corona?”

When we understand what the population is scared of and what rumours they believe, we can develop an outreach strategy that addresses the nuances and realities of each area where MSF is working. It is why discussions and information sessions are so important, especially during the COVID-19 era.

The underlying issues

COVID-19 is complicated around the world, but in countries like the DRC the challenges are exacerbated by persistent extreme poverty, instability, conflict and a healthcare system that is barely functioning. 

It is a country where rumours spread easily, with simmering armed conflict and with communities that are constantly on the move to escape the latest waves of violence from armed groups.

“How can we protect ourselves when there are new internally displaced people arriving? How do we know where they come from?”

“I can’t afford to buy enough food for my family anymore since the price has gone up.”

At the end of the day, many people in Goma are scared. People everywhere are scared. Nobody knows what the coming months may bring.

This is why proactive health promotion is so important during this time – people need answers to their questions from a source that they trust. People need their fears to be heard and calmed. People need to have access to accurate information.

Health promotion is critical

During times as uncertain as these, health promotion becomes a critical activity. It is how we connect and engage with people, how we learn about their fears and beliefs and needs.

Community engagement informs the type of response that is needed in the community and helps MSF develop effective and appropriate interventions to support the population.

And so our health promotion teams will continue travelling into the community, as long as the situation allows, to listen, to ask questions, and to give the community a voice and make sure that the population we serve are at the centre of MSF’s response.

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Read more: From our staff in DRC

Crossing the swamp to keep my promise

"We're being attacked in the Ebola treatment centre": Reflections after the fire