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Pandemic response
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In the DRC, Guy Bokongo inspires action

June 8, 2020 by Kelly Huffman

For this advocate and policy leader, personal loss drives a commitment to improving public health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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As PATH’s advocacy and policy lead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guy Bokongo works closely with the government and other partners to improve public health. Photo: Yves Zihindula/PATH.

This story is part of our ongoing “People of PATH” series, in which we highlight a team member who’s moving humanity forward.

In 2009, Guy Bokongo and his wife lost their newborn son. The younger of twin boys, Excellence was born with respiratory difficulties. But the hospital had no medical oxygen to help him breathe. “The situation was chaos,” says Guy, who considered suing the facility over his son’s death.

Instead, he turned his energy to helping others. “The loss of my child created in me the passion to advocate for kids and for mothers,” says Guy. As PATH’s advocacy and policy lead in the DRC, he works with decision-makers at every level of government to support policies—including for medical oxygen—that improve public health.

For him, advocacy work extends far beyond committee meetings and project management. “Meeting with people is fine, discussing is fine,” says Guy, “but what the DRC needs is not only words, but technical support.” When high-level government officials turn to him for advice, he’s ready with concrete actions to address everything from immunization to COVID-19.

An advocate confronts the pandemic

As in many places, the DRC faces an onslaught of misinformation about COVID-19. Some Congolese, Guy explains, suspect that the pandemic is a ruse—a ploy for more funding from international donors, which corrupt politicians could then divert to their own pockets. In Kinshasa, a city of about 13 million, many residents struggle every day for economic survival. “They don’t care about the name of the disease,” says Guy, “let alone technicalities about its transmission.”

To spread awareness and safety tips, Guy and his team are producing a series of videos. In them, trusted local champions share the basics about COVID-19 and how to reduce the risk of contracting it. The most successful spokespeople? High-level officials who have recovered. “People are really surprised that someone close to the head of state could be affected,” says Guy. “Now these recovered people are known and influential.”

At the onset of the pandemic, he witnessed a lack of coordination among government offices. But now, says Guy, viewpoints are beginning to harmonize. “There’s still a lot to do because of the size of the country and the complexity of the response,” he says, “but the government now has a clearer plan and has improved coordination.” As of early June, the DRC had confirmed almost 3,500 cases of COVID-19 and 75 deaths.

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Guy leads a breakout session during PATH’s Advocacy Learning Lab on decentralization in Nairobi, Kenya (2019). During the event, he also spoke on a panel about his work in passing provincial-level health edicts in two of DRC’s provinces. Photo: PATH.

Spurring action on immunization

Besides COVID-19, the DRC contends with many challenges, including malaria, periodic outbreaks of Ebola, eruptions of violence in the East, and one of the highest child mortality rates in the world. One out of every seven Congolese children dies of a vaccine-preventable illness before the age of 5.

Last year, Guy worked with the Expanded Programme on Immunization and other partners to organize the country’s largest-ever National Forum on Immunization and Polio Eradication. He navigated complex logistics to gather governors, ministers of health, and technical staff from all 26 provinces—a feat accomplished in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. At the close of the Kinshasa summit, a breakthrough: President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo made a powerful, public commitment to immunization as a pillar of universal health coverage. “There was a feeling of optimism in the air,” says Guy, “a realization of the need to act now, and to do more.”

Next day came the announcement of a disbursement of US$3.3 million in co-financing for the purchase of new vaccines through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. To encourage the momentum, Guy participates in a small committee that meets with the president to keep health goals high on the national agenda. Those efforts are paying off. This month, the DRC government contributed $16 million in 2020 co-financing—an unprecedented act for the country.

All the while, Guy envisions a healthier future for the DRC. “My hope is that the government will be able to take ownership of all the things happening here, so that we can strengthen the health system of this country,” he says. “Maybe one day, PATH won’t be needed.”

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