Democratic Republic of Congo: Inside the country with the lowest Covid vaccination rate in the world

A Congolese man gets his Covid vaccine Kinshasa, the capital Credit: UNICEF

By Digital Multimedia Producer Wedaeli Chibelushi

Outside a school in Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), parents hastily lead their children away from the gates during the middle of the day.

A woman, trailed by two small schoolchildren, clocks a man filming the exodus and yells at him: "We have come to take our kids out of school because they are trying to vaccinate them by force!

"[President Felix] Tshisekedi, you have failed. Stop, stop! We cannot accept this."

The resulting video was circulated via Whatsapp in February - a month before the Congo had even received its first vaccines.

A viral video shows parents taking their children out of school for fear of them being forcibly vaccinated

The DRC has the lowest Covid vaccination rate in the world - less than 0.1% of its 90 million residents have received all their doses. Experts say this failure is in part thanks to misinformation - like the aforementioned schools rumour - and a deep-seated mistrust of government and the West.

Some 57,338 coronavirus cases and 1,091 deaths have been recorded in the Congo since the start of the pandemic, but it is thought low testing rates mean the actual numbers are much higher.

To tackle Covid in the DRC, Covax - an initiative that aims to ensure doses for low-income nations - sent its first shipment to the country in March. Congo's access to jabs came late compared to much of the world, for example, the UK's rollout began in December.

The Congolese government has struggled to distribute the vaccines throughout its regions, but infrastructure issues appear relatively manageable compared to the spell of misinformation.

Rodriguez Katsuva, who runs Congo Check, the country's first fact-checking service, said that 30% of untrue articles and social media messages encountered by his team last month were Covid-related.

"One of the worst ones was on WhatsApp," he said.

“It said that everyone should take their bible, and if you find hair in your bible, put it in water and you’ll have the vaccine. It’s easy to find hair in bibles, hair sheds every day!”

Mr Katsuva believes the influence of religious leaders is part of the reason why misinformation is endemic in Congo.

"There’s a lot of the population that’s Christian," he says (96% of Congo subscribes to Christianity, the US government estimates).

"Many pastors share fake news, they share conspiracies on 5G, on the vaccine."

Congolese women pray during an evening service at Kiwanja's catholic church in eastern Congo.

He also believes Congo's low education rate contributes to the spread of untruths. According to the Educate a Child charity, only 54% of six-year-old children in Congo attend school, despite this being the official age for school enrollment.

Alongside misinformation, mistrust also contributes to Congo's vaccine scepticism.

“Mistrust is twofold - there’s mistrust of the Congolese state but there is also mistrust of the West, where most of the vaccines come from,” says Professor Phil Clark, a School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) academic who studies conflicts in Congo.

Such wariness has snowballed over decades, amid armed clashes, political infighting and human rights violations.

"There’s a lot of anger towards the United Nations peacekeeping mission, western NGOs and foreign mining interests," Professor Clark explains.

A man gets his Covid jab in Kinshasa. Credit: UNICEF

"That coalesces into a view that outside actors come in and exploit the population for their own benefit and they leave nothing behind to local people.”

He adds that many Congolese people don't trust their own government to provide effective, legitimate healthcare.

Just weeks ago, a report from The Congo Research Group, based in New York University, found only $6 million of the $363 Covid funding received from the International Monetary Fund last year has been publicly accounted for.

Moreover, the government has been slow to assuage concerns about the vaccine. President Felix Tshisekedi published a photo of himself getting the jab in September, but not before publicly refusing to take it for six months.

President Félix Tshisekedi gets the coronavirus vaccine. Credit: Twitter/@CMR_Covid19_RDC

Given the state's sluggish campaign, grassroots organisations remain the best hope of increasing Congo's inoculation rates.

The Amani Institute, a local youth-led non-profit centre, launched outreach programs in an attempt to educate hesitant communities about the jab.

"We're not really here to tell people to take the vaccine. That's not our mission, but we can show people what's going on, what's being said, what's right and what's wrong," founder Joseph Tsongo says.

"It is difficult for people to learn to accept these vaccines. It's very difficult, really, but we're raising awareness."

Awareness and access are vital, not only for the Congo, but for the wider world. The UN has said low vaccination rates in developing countries like the DRC leaves "many millions of people vulnerable to the virus while allowing deadly variants to emerge and ricochet back across the world."

It adds: "Moreover, variants of concern could potentially render first generation vaccines ineffective in less than a year, prolong the pandemic, deepen the negative development impact and impede a fair and sustainable recovery."

Congo's Ministry of Public Health did not respond to ITV News' request for comment