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Impact of COVID-19 on our work in the DR Congo

Impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the operations of humanitarian and development actors in the Democratic Republic of Congo: status update and recommendations from International NGOs

According to the latest official report of the Ministry of Health dated 25 March 2020, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has 48 confirmed cases of people with COVID-19 and 3 deaths. Members of the DRC INGO Forum, a body of more than 105 international organizations operating in the country, wish to share with all stakeholders their perspectives on the impact of epidemic on their response capacity, hoping that the recommendations made in this document can be taken up.

If the situation at the global level is alarming, it is all the more so in the DRC where health facilities are unprepared to respond to an epidemic of this magnitude. The epidemic will lead, directly, to the endangerment of a very large number of Congolese men and women, and simultaneously also risks having a negative impact on the ongoing response to urgent humanitarian needs.

Indeed, the measures taken to stem the spread of COVID-19, although necessary, are likely to have a negative multiplier effect on already vulnerable populations. The impact could go beyond overcrowding of health facilities and have consequences on the human, socio-economic, logistical, financial and security levels. Such an impact on a country like the DRC, on continental proportions, could have a destabilizing effect on the entire region.

As humanitarian workers, we must maintain lifesaving programs at all costs, while ensuring that we follow the “do no harm” principle to minimize the risk of spreading the disease. A balance must be struck between these two imperatives in order to be able to maintain and adapt our operations to the exceptional situations we are currently facing. In order to enable humanitarian actors to respond to existing emergencies, while also responding to the COVID-19 epidemic, we wish to raise the following urgent asks:

Don't block humanitarian aid In order implement humanitarian activities, we must guarantee the flow of necessary imports and human resources in the country. In this context we stress the importance of opening humanitarian corridors to the DRC. The ability of humanitarian personnel to move into and out of the country is critical to reinforce the existing humanitarian response and the future response (COVID-19).

Likewise, the movement restrictions which are necessary to reduce the spread of the epidemic throughout the country should not completely block the ability of INGOs to be able to operate and respond to the most urgent needs. In this regard, we call for ensuring that the measures to reduce national air and river transportation do not affect humanitarian aid by impeding the transportation of necessary items, as well as humanitarian workers. These workers would travel while respecting measures strict measures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly affecting the international supply of medical products, through disrupted air freight and maritime transport, as well as restrictions on the export of equipment and medicines. This disruption is likely to continue. Given these exceptional circumstances, INGOs requiring medical inputs ask donors for this to waive the existing purchasing policy and the authorization to buy pharmaceutical products locally, ensuring their quality.

In this context, we specifically recommend:

To humanitarian leadership and diplomatic representations:

  • Support UNHAS to ensure a minimum service for humanitarian actors while respecting strict standards, established collectively, for reducing the risks of COVID-19 contamination;

  • Advocate for the implementation of a regular humanitarian airlift allowing the transportation of equipment, items and qualified personnel, while also allowing, where necessary, medical and security evacuations in compliance with humanitarian principles;

  • Negotiate with the countries in the sub-region to allow the passage, by land or river, of aid and, if necessary, humanitarian personnel in compliance with measures to prevent the virus from spreading;

  • Ensure that all the funds allocated to the DRC through the Humanitarian Fund for the DRC do not focus solely on the response to the COVID-19 virus while forgetting the other crises in the country.

To donors:

  • The funds allocated for the COVID-19 response must not come at the expense of funding humanitarian emergencies, which are already at dramatically low levels to respond to all the emergencies in progress;

  • Authorize exemptions to facilitate local purchases of necessary items while implementing procedures to guarantee minimum quality for sensitive items;

  • Ensure budgetary flexibility to take into account that some costs for the implementation of projects may now be higher, in particular in terms of supply, security and risk reduction;

  • Allow the prioritization of certain vital activities at the expense of others, if necessary.

To the Government of the DRC:

  • Accept the establishment of humanitarian corridors to facilitate the movement of materials, equipment, necessary items and humanitarian personnel, while respecting strict standards, established collectively, for reducing the risks of COVID-19 contamination;

  • Ensure that national transportation for humanitarian purposes throughout the country and within Kinshasa (be it flights or via land, river and lake) is not blocked to allow the continuity of the most urgent activities.

Improve the capacity of humanitarian actors to act We are faced with a situation which affects the entire population in an indiscriminate manner and has the risk of quickly worsening an already alarming humanitarian situation if humanitarian actors are not able access vulnerable populations. As such, we call on the Congolese State to support us in our efforts and ensure the greatest facilitation of aid so that humanitarians can be effective in this emergency.

In order to ensure the rapid deployment of key humanitarian experts to respond to the changing needs, it seems essential that the GoDRC facilitates visas for humanitarian personnel, allowing them to travel to the DRC. For new recruits, there is currently a two-week quarantine required for arrival in the country. It is necessary for the DGM services to grant exemptions for humanitarian experts, enabling them to avoid examination in medical facilities upon arrival. The DGM should facilitate procedures for obtaining ordinary establishment visas as quickly as possible (i.e. no longer than one month).

Since the announcement of measures to reduce the risk of spread of the disease by His Excellency the President of the Republic, activities have been suspended and prohibited in certain provinces. These include, for example, vaccination programs against measles which kills thousands of children in the DRC and distributions of humanitarian aid to displaced populations humanitarian aid to displaced populations. Humanitarian workers are committed to working collectively to ensure preventive measures and establish minimum standards. It is essential that national, provincial and local authorities act proactively to allow the continuity of these crucial activities. Impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the operations of humanitarian and development actors in the Democratic Republic of Congo: status update and recommendations from International NGOs

Rumors and anxiety are mounting across the country regarding the epidemic, and security risks are increasingly felt, sometimes stigmatizing people based on their nationality or origin. It is important that the Congolese authorities, including at the highest level of the state, ensure that clear, detailed and regular communication is carried out in such a way that enables INGOs to work efficiently and without disproportionate risks to the security of their staff. This communication could go hand in hand with broader awareness-raising about the COVID-19 virus and measures to adapt INGO programs to prevent its spread.

In this context, we recommend specifically:

Humanitarian leadership: • Ensure that the coordination of humanitarian activities related to the COVID-19 response is done through existing humanitarian coordination mechanisms, rather than creating a new system parallel.

To the Government of the DRC:

  • Establish a "one-stop shop" that would facilitate obtaining of any exemptions and facilities for INGOs involved in the humanitarian response and the response to the COVID-19 virus;

  • Ensure official communication to all state administrations and services at national and provincial levels to clarify the need for continuity of humanitarian aid and the importance of facilitating these efforts;

  • Through the Ministries of Planning and Finance, guarantee continuity in the supply chain by ensuring the validity of inter-ministerial orders throughout the crisis;

  • Through the Ministry of the Interior and the DGM, facilitate the presence of humanitarian workers, ensure that expatriate passports are in their possession and that an exemption from regular procedures is put in place throughout the crisis;

  • Work with NGOs to resolve administrative obstacles that could hamper the ability to respond to the urgent needs of the Congolese people. To provincial and local authorities:

  • Work with humanitarians in their provinces to define necessary measures to allow the continuity of vital activities while ensuring the risk of spread is minimized to the extent possible;

  • Communicate clearly to the provincial government the importance of facilitating the work of humanitarians in their province.

To diplomatic representatives:

  • Ensure that their humanitarian workers are protected and have documents allowing them to travel inside and outside the country. These documents must also ensure that they can access medical and security evacuations if necessary.

Responding to the COVID-19 epidemic More than ever, we are facing a major challenge, which requires more efficient and effective coordination, and additional funding to meet the needs. It is necessary to bring all stakeholders together around a common effort that engages donors and development actors to strengthen, as quickly as possible, not only health systems but also implements socio-economic activities to reduce the impact of the measures taken to counter COVID-19 (social distancing, temporary closure of markets, etc.) on the Congolese population. This humanitarian coordination should support the coordination of the Congolese government, and build on the lessons learned from the coordination of the Ebola response. In order to avoid the pitfalls that occurred at the beginning of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) response, real community- based work must be started as soon as possible, which should include a component on the protection of health care workers. This would contribute to stop the rumors that are already rampant and are likely to spread.

This coordination should take into account the socio-economic impact of the COVID pandemic, and its collateral effects (border closures, export shutdowns, reduced resources, increase in prices of essential foodstuffs ) which are likely to cause more damage to the Congolese social fabric than on only a health-systems level. In a fragile and conflict-prone context, it is necessary to consider social measures and policies in order to mitigate such risks.

As noted above, a response to the COVID-19 virus requires the massive deployment of equipment, medical items/drugs and experienced personnel. In the face of such a crisis, we would call on more experts and aid workers. However, at present, our teams are reduced due to the rapid closure of borders and airspace. We need to be able to ensure the safety of personnel already in the country and to ensure that additional staff can arrive.

In this context, we recommend more specifically:

To humanitarian leadership:

  • Advocate for the implementation of a regular humanitarian airlift allowing the transportation of equipment, items/drugs and qualified personnel, while also allowing staff to leave the DRC;

  • Ensure that the DRC, as the country with the largest HRP in the world, sees its needs prioritized within the framework of the global HRP in response to COVID-19.

To donors:

  • Unlock additional funds to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic in the DRC;

  • Ensure funding going beyond a purely medical response to integrate aspects of awareness-raising, community work and activities to reduce the socio-economic impact of the disease and the response.

To the Government of the DRC:

  • Take measures to reduce the socio-economic impact of the restrictions implemented to stop the spread of the virus;

  • Ensure clear and regular communication on the measures taken against the epidemic, known medical and epidemiological elements, and on good prevention practices in order to reduce the spread of rumors and stigmatizing speeches;

  • Ensure that the coordination of the response includes all relevant stakeholders (United Nations agencies, national NGOs, international NGOs and donors). INGOs should be represented through collectively-identified representatives in order to ensure representativeness and accountability of those INGOs sitting at the coordination table.

Faced with a unique situation, appropriate measures are necessary It is imperative to maintain funding for current activities – and to consider increasing these funds due to the need to adapt activities to the national and international context, the necessary protection measures and logistical constraints. There must be a refocus on essential activities aimed at saving lives, and funds may need to be reallocated to other activities justified by the context. At the same time, it is crucial that all funding specific to the COVID response comes in addition to what already exists. A Global Humanitarian Response Plan is being validated. It seems essential to us that this plan targets the DRC as a priority. Indeed, such an epidemic in the country could have absolutely disastrous consequences, both in terms of health and in terms of national and regional security.

In this context, it is essential to take into account the need for funding for activities to support the national and local economy in order to avoid destabilization in an already difficult socio-economic climate. We understand that bilateral or multilateral funding will be affected in the short and medium term. It is imperative that all donors, whatever their nature, mobilize international financial institutions and multilateral envelopes to respond to this pandemic and to the health and socio-economic crises it is causing.

In this context, we recommend specifically:

To donors:

  • Maintain funds provided for the humanitarian response in the DRC to meet pre-existing needs;

  • Allow flexibility in reviewing priorities, adapting current programs and reallocating funds according to the context, needs and measures taken to reduce the risk of spread

  • Participate in the search for additional funds for the COVID-19 response while taking into account the devastating socio-economic impact that national and international measures can have, and compensate for it with adequate assistance.

To the Government of the DRC:

• Take strong measures to mitigate, to the extent possible, the impact that the pandemic could have on the socio- economic sector in the DRC. It is important to strengthen regulatory mechanisms to prevent soaring prices of food and basic necessities, enable local trade, and ensure security and protection of the population.

Saving lives together The importance of the principle of "saving lives together" implies a "duty of care" for humanitarian and development workers. Access to United Nations health services and infrastructure should be guaranteed to humanitarian actors and those involved in the response to the pandemic. The same applies for access to the MEDEVAC and SECEVAC evacuation capacities of the United Nations both inside and outside the country.

In this context, we recommend specifically:

To humanitarian leadership:

  • Appeal to neighboring countries and to the international community to allow and facilitate MEDEVAC and SECEVAC;

  • Guarantee access to the medical infrastructure of the United Nations Agencies and MONUSCO in the country.

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