Preparing for COVID-19 in Congo

A Letter from Larry and Inge Sthreshley, serving in Congo

April 2020

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Dear Friends,

How do you prepare 1,055 health facilities in the Congo for an onslaught of COVID-19 patients? UKAID has given IMA World Health funds to do just that, and they want us to be operational immediately. Our top priority is to protect the health care staff. If they become sick, then no one can be treated even for common illnesses, like malaria, that people die from in Congo. Our next priority is to effectively inform the population about how to protect themselves from COVID-19 and to avoid contaminating others. Our third priority is to ensure that the health facilities are able to treat patients with the most effective means available. This is all much easier to say than to do. Most health centers in the interior do not have running water, so they need more hand-washing stations, consisting of a bucket with a faucet and a basin on a stand. They need masks, gloves, soap, and medicines. The logistics get complicated very quickly, especially when everyone else in the world is trying to buy the same things at the same time.

Larry and I have been working from home for about three weeks now. We are trying to juggle developing the COVID-19 response and, at the same time, figure out, in this new COVID-19 context, how to continue the current ASSR program. ASSR stands for “Appui au Système de Santé en RDC,” a program funded by UKAID that supports the health system in Congo. The program assists the government in providing health care in 4 provinces, serving a population of 9 million people. Essential activities still need to continue, like supplying medicines to the 870 health centers and 50 hospitals in the program area, many of which are managed by churches. In Sud Ubangi province, there are over a million mosquito nets that need to be distributed before COVID-19 spreads to that region. At the same time, as IMA Country Director, Larry has to think about the safety of the staff and think through scenarios of what we would do if the social fabric unravels. Half of IMA’s ex-pat staff have left or are stuck outside the country. Some IMA staff are trapped in the interior of the country because in-country air transport has been abruptly halted.

For COVID-19 response, UKAID is giving IMA World Health 6 million dollars. The response will provide health facilities with personal protection equipment, messaging for medical staff and the general population on how to protect against COVID-19, and train staff on how to treat COVID-19 patients who do not need intensive care. When the government authorizes drug treatments, the funds will be used to supply drugs to the health centers and hospitals in the current ASSR program. Kinshasa, the capital city, is a priority for UKAID and the COVID-19 response will also include health facilities in Kinshasa, covering 40% of the population. The nine health facilities managed by the Presbyterian Community of Kinshasa (CPK) will receive assistance through this COVID-19 funding.

What impact COVID-19 will have in Congo is a big question. The population in Congo is very young compared to western countries. 62% of the population is under 25 years of age. Only 2.7% of the population is over 65 years of age. But there are a significant number of adults with diabetes and hypertension, not to mention the thousands of vulnerable children under five who suffer from acute and chronic malnutrition. The health system is already insufficient. For people living on $2.00 a day, with no cash reserves, a lockdown makes survival more difficult as they will have no food. Sheltering in place for many is not really an option. Fortunately, the government took action early to close borders, schools, gathering points of more than 20 people, and non- essential stores. These actions are giving the health sector time to prepare.

So, it is a challenging time for us. We are operating in “3 modes” at the same time. We are keeping programs going, scaling the programs up so they can effectively deal with COVID-19 and assuring that the staff is safe – which may mean evacuation. Our minds cycle through these 3 modes several times on any day. It can be mentally exhausting. As we face these realities here in Congo, we are thankful for a great team of people with whom we work. We are also grateful for the support the PC(USA) and IMA staff have given us as we have chosen to remain in Kinshasa.

Please know that we are grateful for your financial support and for your prayers that sustain us as we journey together with the people of Congo through this unprecedented time. We ask for your continued support and prayers as we collectively strive to be a Matthew 25 church. Please pray for wisdom for the IMA staff and for our ability to secure the supplies needed for the health centers serving so many people with very limited means with which to face this pandemic.

Peace,

Inge & Larry

“The Eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

Deuteronomy 33:27


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