[Lire en Français] The Coronavirus pandemic has terrorized the world and brought us to a grinding halt. Data from COVID-19 Tracker at Johns Hopkins University indicate that over one million people have been infected worldwide and nearly 65,000 have died from the pandemic and the numbers keep growing. To learn more about Africa’s readiness and response to Coronavirus, The Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN) reached out to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Minister of Human Rights (MHR) Andre Lite on April 4, 2020. The following are the Honorable Lite’s responses to our interview.
AFJN: Earlier this week it was reported that Doctor Jean-Paul Mira, Head of intensive care at Cochin Hospital in Paris said during the debate on the French TV channel LCI : “If I was a bit provocative, I would say that we could go and do tests in Africa. They haven’t got masks, no treatment, no intensive care system, we could go and test there.” For centuries, the world has used Africans as guinea pigs for their experiments. What do you say about this kind of attitude towards Africa?
MHR: These two sinister figures [Jean-Paul Mira and his counterpart] should know that Africa will no longer serve as a testing ground as it used to be the case during the colonial or slavery days. We also want to take this opportunity to warn our partners from the West, in particular the public institutions for not condemning these views. They simply turned a blind eye to the statements made by these two doctors. These statements were racist, and we strongly condemn them. We will not tolerate such views.
If clinical trials should be conducted, why not do them in France, Spain or Italy where a lot of innocent people are dying because they believed some experts who downplayed the gravity of the coronavirus?
AFJN: On March 29, 2020, Andrew Pekosz, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health tweeted: “I know #COVID19 is the primary concern of everyone but it’s good to acknowledge the efforts in #DRC at controlling their #Ebola outbreak.” What can the world learn from how the DRC prevented Ebola from becoming an international crisis like Coronavirus?
MHR: The DRC definitely has a long experience in fighting against Ebola, of which the latest outbreak has just been defeated in eastern DRC. We would be very happy, as a country, to share that experience with the family of nations in attempting to defeat COVID-19. That being said, comparing our experience with Ebola, which was an epidemic, to Coronavirus, which is a pandemic, is something I cannot support. These are two different diseases and health experts should tell us how to proceed with this global pandemic.
But at the end of the day, Coronavirus will eventually be eradicated as was the case with the Spanish flu, the Ebola virus disease or any other killer disease the world faced in the past.
AFJN: There is a video circulating on social media in which the DRC’s COVID-19 response chief, Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum says that the DRC has been chosen for a clinical trial which may be manufactured in Canada, US or China. What do you say about this?
MHR: I also became aware of Dr. Muyembe’s statement on social media, as most people. Whether the statement will be acted on, remains to be seen. I for one want to stress that the DRC should not serve as a testing ground for vaccines against Coronavirus. Who chose the DRC for this clinical trial and who decided on behalf of the DRC state to participate in that trial? I am a Cabinet Minister and am not aware of any such request made to the DRC to be part of the trial. Absolutely not.
So, I would simply say the country has nothing to do with this statement and therefore we stand ready to strongly oppose any move to conduct a trial in the DRC. We already opposed a French professor who voiced similar views, as if the DRC as a country, could not think for itself and for its future. It would be hard to believe these Western countries where the vaccine is developed love us more than we love ourselves.
AFJN: Your Excellency, even developed countries have been caught by surprise by the Coronavirus Pandemic, how is Africa responding to the outbreak? Do you have any recommendation for an African Union response?
MHR: Well, there is no getting blood out of a stone. This is certainly not the first time Africa is facing a challenge of this magnitude. Africans have been living on the African continent for thousands of years now. Much as we have survived challenges such as slavery, pest, cholera, Ebola, wars and a host of other diseases; so are we going to survive Coronavirus.
The DRC, as a country, finds itself in a unique position as President Felix Tshisekedi is the Vice Chair of the African Union. We will contribute to the prospective measures to combat COVID-19 at African level. We will see how the DRC can propose some sort of a Marshall Plan to rebuild African countries’ economy following the destruction left by Coronavirus.
It is an open secret that while this crisis is initially a health crisis, it will, in the short term have economic, social and political implications. And it would be suicidal for African states to remain inactive and do nothing. We will need to demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness to recover from the pandemic.
On the other hand, unlike the IMF proposal to freeze the servicing of debts owed by African nations and which was recently approved by the UN Secretary General, I think that full cancellation of these debts on humanitarian grounds should be done. This will help our countries reinvest the cancelled debts into critical sectors such as health, education, water and sanitation, environment protection, and infrastructures development. Of course, this will require a discussion with the Bretton Woods institutions and the Paris Club and the London Club in order to thrash out the modalities of debt cancelation. Africa has been burdened by this debt for so long, it is high time it got cancelled.
AFJN: Finally, as minister of Human Rights, do you have a COVID-19 response for DRC’s crowded prison?
MHR: Let say from the outset that prisons are under the jurisdiction of my colleague the Minister of Justice. However, we have made a series of proposals to the Prime Minister aimed at releasing prisoners doing time for minor offense, those in prison under pretrial arrest, and those that should be granted presidential pardon.
On the other hand, on a personal basis, I approached the Minister of Home Affairs to give instruction to the Police so that those under pretrial detention in our police stations for minor offenses should also be released. The Home Affairs Minister assured me to give that instruction within 24 hours.
In doing so, social distancing measures will be possible in our prisons. That being said, other measures announced by the president to avoid COVID-19, such as hand-washing and coughing etiquette will also be imposed in prisons.
AFJN: Thank you for your time, Your Excellency.
The Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN) is a faith-based, non-partisan coalition network of 29 US-based religious communities/congregations of men and women. AFJN brings the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching to the public sphere to bear on US-Africa policy and the structures of injustice on the African continent. AFJN builds grassroots coalitions to promote just governance, accountability and transparency and work to change the structures of injustice that infringe on the rights and dignity of God’s children.