ARRIVING IN Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is famously difficult. In the darkest days of Mobutu, the dictator from 1965 to 1997, new arrivals risked having all of their possessions looted by customs officials, who were otherwise not paid. That, thankfully, is over. Yet there is still a frisson of fear when you go through immigration. The officers of the DGM, the border police, will check your passport extremely carefully, thumbing every previous visa in it. Then you will have to show your yellow-fever certificate, and proof of vaccinations for polio and tetanus (God help those who forget, or whose certificate is torn or damaged). Finally, you have to clear customs, who mostly do not rifle through bags any more. But you never know.
These days, however, there is one more stop. Before you can even enter the arrivals terminal, you have to go through a system of portacabins to take a mandatory coronavirus test, which costs $45. For most of the passengers who arrived when I did in early February, this was an affront too far. On exiting the bus from the plane, roughly half of the passengers from my flight saw the new building and decided simply to sprint past it. A few police officers tried to stop them, wrestling one young man to the ground. But the numbers were too many: most reached the arrivals hall and, seemingly, went through unmolested. I watched in awe, but decided to abide by the law and get my test. On entering the portacabin I immediately wished I had sprinted, too.
Inside the first room, airless with its windows firmly sealed, was a mass of perhaps 50 people, half in white coats, the other half passengers. In fairness, everybody was wearing a mask. But sadly the vast majority had them positioned below the mouth, like a chin strap without a helmet. Almost everybody seemed to be shouting. To register for the test, you had to fill in an online form with your contact information. But the WiFi was not working and since this was an international flight, many passengers (including me) lacked a local SIM card with access to data. Hence the shouting. I was there for a covid-19 test and it was the least virus-secure environment I had been in for months. Eventually, after about 45 minutes, I managed to find a staff member who filled in the form for me, took my money and let me through to be swabbed. A nurse did a half-hearted rub of my tonsils and the sample went into a bin.
To my astonishment, the next day I got a certificate by email confirming my negative test result. And I was glad that I did. Because it turns out that across Congo, there is now an enormous bureaucracy intended to track the spread of covid-19. Social distancing is almost non-existent (in any case, hardly anyone can afford to stay home). Bars and restaurants are open—albeit with a 9pm curfew (widely flouted). But if you want to travel anywhere, you have to stop to fill in a form. For any internal flight you have to show a negative test result, but so too do you (in theory) for travelling across provincial borders in a bus. And this has become, in true Congolese style, a helpful income-booster for public servants.
Later in my trip I travelled by bus from Lubumbashi, in the province of Haut-Katanga, to Kolwezi, a mining city in Lualaba. At the provincial border a chap in a white coat inspected my printed-out test certificate and his face fell as he saw it was in order. Then he asked: “This is the original, where are the copies?” When I said that was indeed a copy, printed from the email, he refused to believe me, thrusting it back at me. “No, you need a copy, since you do not have a copy, give me 10,000 francs,” he said (about $5). I avoided paying the bribe by adopting the same tactic as the passengers on my flight—I walked through before I could be stopped.
And I wonder, could these shakedowns be why, in Congo, people I met almost universally thought that the coronavirus is not real? In Kolwezi a taxi driver asked me whether black people could get it, because he thought it killed only white people. A lawyer I met told me he believed it exists, because he had had it quite badly. But most people he knew thought it was a fiction. In Goma, a city in the east, Magloire Balagizi, a doctor, explained that few Congolese people recognise the symptoms of covid-19. “It is just like a fever, you see,” he told me. “It seems like malaria. People cannot afford to go to hospital for a fever. They cannot afford a test and there is no treatment anyway.”
Coronavirus has most probably rampaged through Congo. Members of the president’s family certainly had it; one of his uncles, a bishop, Gerard Mulumba, died of it in April. Of the various foreigners I met in Congo, a scarily high proportion reported having had it too. Aid-workers say they have been accused of bringing the disease to communities where, in fact, they probably picked it up. Although nobody in Congo keeps reliable death statistics, hospitals report a spike in mortality over the past few months.
And yet for all the attention on covid-19, deadlier diseases continue to kill Congolese in greater numbers. Around one in three people catches malaria in a typical year. It kills more people than anything else, and accounts for a fifth of deaths of children under five. A measles epidemic last year killed more than 6,000 people. Covid-19, by comparison, seems relatively mild, especially for a population with a median age of 17. And when most people’s conscious experience of the disease is to encounter officials using it to extract money from them, and to force them to wait in lines to have their temperature scanned, is it any surprise that they think it is a scam?