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An exchange with Dr. Denis Mukwege on Covid-19 crisis in Africa (20-04-2020)

by Heidi Hautala, Vice-President in charge of Human Rights, Democracy and the Sakharov Prize Community

One of my tasks and privileges as Vice President of the European Parliament is to stay in touch with our Sakharov Prize laureates. They are personalities who are awarded due to their outstanding work to defend human rights and freedom of expression. When one of them faces persecution or other challenges, we try to support them.

One of these fantastic people is Dr. Denis Mukwege, the surgeon who has been widely applauded for his important work to help victims of rape in the cruel conflict in the Eastern parts of the Democratic Republic Congo. He has become one of the leading voices in condemning rape as a systematic weapon of war.

This exchange took place on Long Friday. (I think my late grandmother would have accepted it though she had taught her children that it was not appropriate even to lift a needle from the floor on Long Friday.) It was particularly topical as Dr. Mukwege has been called to be the Advisor of the Governor of South Kivu, one of the 26 provinces of the country, on the Covid-19 crisis. His views and suggestions bear relevance to the whole of Africa. When 80 % of the people live with less than two dollars a day, confinement is simply not the solution when people need to go out every day for food. - "The choice is between a slow death of hunger and going out to be contaminated and to contaminate others." That is why Dennis Mukwege emphasizes prevention. "Prevention, prevention, prevention", learning from the experiences of European countries and the United States.

Prevention is particularly crucial as there is a real scarcity of health facilities and human resources. African countries can draw experience from the ebola crisis. It proved important to identify all positive cases and confirm all contacts they had had. In South Kivu, big towns are closed. People moving in and out of them are controlled for temperature and kept for 30 minutes for seeing if they cough etc. Around the capital city of Bukavu there are 94 checkpoints. (In our closed Finnish province of Uusimaa around the capital region temperature is not measured and cough controlled, so far.) Washing hands, keeping away from crowds, keeping face masks are key.

When asked if people are aware of these vital measures and follow them, Dr. Mukwege says, not really, and awareness raising campaigns are necessary. As access to clean water is a serious issue, the authorities should now provide communities with tanks with chlorinated water. Mukwege is an advocate of compulsory wearing of face masks when moving outside. People will be advised on making personal protection masks from local tissue. Of the population, 96 % are younger than 60 years old. Thus it is possible to have the 4 %, the older people, stay at home and their needs to be cared by the younger ones.

Dr. Mukwege is aware of the polemic around the use of the anti-malarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and their serious side effects (e.g. by EMA, European Medical Agency). He however is a proponent of them due to the experience of 40 years in Africa.
"We cannot go on arguing while people are dying. We need to do some random trials and comparative studies to make sure of the hydroxychloroquine efficiency to justify its broader use."

When asked what messages he would like to convey to the EU Commissioner on International Partnerships, my compatriot Jutta Urpilainen, he emphasizes access to tests. Mukwege is confident that tests now being developed in Europe and South Korea, would provide a solution showing the result in 30 minutes. Then those with the virus could be isolated. Concerning the profound experience of Dr. Mukwege with rape victims, he is very knowledgeable on the special vulnerability of women in amidst the Covid-19 crisis. His teams are sensitive to the increase of sexual violence and are ready to help victims. He has also called for shelters for women.

After this exchange it is increasingly clear that we in the European Union must not only focus on controlling the virus and protecting people in our own countries. It is not acceptable to leave the Africans on their own, with their extremely limited capacities and resources. We can do a lot to help the well thought strategy of prevention of the pandemic throughout Africa succeed. Just there is no time to waste.

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The EP Sakharov Prize Network Newsletter is a regular publication sentto MEPs and Sakharov Prize Laureates. The aim of the Newsletter is tobuild stronger links between the laureates and the European Parliamentand to inform about the recent EP and SPN activities.