Vendors starve as DRC protects rich and powerful from virus

Kinshasa (AFP) –


DR Congo has cordoned off the poshest and richest neighbourhood in its chaotic capital Kinshasa to protect it from coronavirus, dealing a body blow to thousands of street hawkers who earn a meagre living there.

Gombe, a waterfront district housing ministries, top government officials, millionaires and embassies, has been closed to other residents of the megapolis of some 12 million, most of whom live in grinding poverty.

Only those with permits are allowed to enter. They include government officials, diplomats, doctors and shopkeepers but not street hawkers.

Barricades now ring Gombe, a district that's been dubbed "The Republic of Gombe" by a former French ambassador, with people having to undergo temperature checks and hand washing before entry.

Albert, a photographer, is penniless after the area was sealed off on April 6.

Earlier the 37-year-old father would make between 10 and 20 dollars every day, standing outside the foreign ministry taking passport photographs.

"Since the closure, I have been stuck inside the house," he said, speaking at home in the poor neighbourhood of Bandalungwa, which borders Gombe.

The family lives off the earnings of his wife, who works in a supermarket.

Kinshasa has been declared the "epicentre" of the new coronavirus epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo by health officials.

There have been over 500 cases of COVID-19 in the sprawling central African country, of which 485 were registered in Kinshasa.

In normal times, Gombe teems with street photographers, hairdressers, booksellers, money changers and vegetable sellers or hawkers vending telephone cards.

But now the government district and playground of the rich and powerful is off-limits for them.

- 'They are killing us' -

"I'm surviving due to divine providence... miraculously," said Antoine Bienga, 80, who has been selling books and religious artefacts for years in the Sacre-Cœur parish near the foreign ministry.

"The government should give us something to survive, like all other responsible countries in the world," said Bienga, who is affectionately called "grandfather" by his clients.

Alain Belesi has been a money changer in Gombe for 24 years.

"This work is my life. Thanks to it, I have warded off unemployment but with this confinement, I have fallen into joblessness," said the father of six.

"By continuing to keep Gombe closed, they are killing us and our families," he said.

Supermarkets and banks reopened in Gombe on April 20 after two weeks of strict confinement but Charles Eboma has not been able to return to sell his art works in front of the Memling, one of the city's few five-star hotels.

"Before the confinement, I could pay my rent, feed my family of eight children and send them to school. But since the lockdown, I haven't earned a single dollar," he said.

Authorities have so far not said when they are going to end Gombe's confinement.

The country's COVID-19 watchdog said in a recent report that the pandemic in the capital city and province "is entering an exponential phase.

"The peak of this growth will occur between the first and second week of May," it warned.

The largest country in sub-Saharan Africa suffers from chronically weak healthcare infrastructure, entrenched poverty and, in Kinshasa, teeming slums without proper sanitation.