How Strong Democratic Values Help Defeat a Pandemic

By Mike Hammer, U.S. Ambassador the the DRC

If ever the world needed a reminder of the critical importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is it. The coronavirus knows nothing of national boundaries, race, religion, nationality, or politics. We are at risk simply because we are human. But we can – and we will – defeat this virus using the strengths that respect for human rights give us. We have seen important progress on human rights in the DRC since President Tshisekedi took office and we appreciate that he is ensuring that security forces exercise restraint and avoid unnecessary use of force during the current State of Emergency. We also commend him and his First Lady Denise Nyakeru for their commitment to stopping domestic and sexual violence, especially during this time when women are most vulnerable. I witnessed this commitment first hand when the First Lady launched la caravane “generation egalite” at this year’s International Women’s Day in Mbuji Mayi.

Take freedom of expression. As individuals, we are powerless against this virus, so we warn one another by using every means of communication at our fingertips. That is why our Embassy has launched two videos to encourage hand washing and wearing masks and why we support other media campaigns to inform the public on how best to protect itself and others from COVID-19. We applaud the many members of parliament, NGOs, and regular Congolese, who are also sharing vital information about the disease and its spread and sound the alarm if something (or somebody) is a threat to our communities. Social media can be a powerful ally against difficult challenges but we must always also guard against misinformation

Or, consider freedom of religion or belief.  Individuals may seek spiritual guidance and protection from the pandemic, either individually or in community, with proper precautions.

Then there’s the right to assemble peacefully and to freely associate – of course in today’s world, appropriately socially distanced. We work with others to organize efforts to support and keep safe our committed first responders and essential workers, including through online advocacy. Congo’s health workers are the heroes, we saw it in fighting Ebola and once again we are seeing it with the Coronavirus.

And, because our very lives depend on it, we expect our political leaders to tell us the truth about the challenges ahead, and to accept criticism and responsibility with humility, grace, and compassion.  This is political and moral accountability. When our leaders and media share credible, timely information about risks and benefits, citizens can make informed choices about how to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors. We applaud President Tshisekedi, Professor J.J. Muyembe, Minister of Health Longondo, and the Presidential Task Force for their transparency. Transparency facilitates international cooperation and was key to combatting Ebola in Eastern DRC and preventing its further spread.

Without these freedoms and the accountability that comes with them, it’s impossible to develop either the medicines that will defeat this virus, or the political and financial strategies needed to repair our economies. It is government’s responsibility to protect both.  Officials who choose to protect their power and pride rather than the health and welfare of their people place their own people’s health and future at risk. We know that a bright, post-pandemic future is possible if – and only if – governments listen and serve the public during this time of adversity.

Authoritarian systems, by contrast, expose their weaknesses in times of crisis. Governments that imprison or oppress those who would warn us that something is seriously amiss engage in the crudest form of denial. Governments that forbid or seek to limit publication of vital information, or to limit scientific, social, or political collaboration not only threaten the lives of their own people, but of people in other nations as well. And governments that use this pandemic to crush religious expression seen as a threat to their control suppress both the instincts of their people and a profound source of personal strength and social solidarity.

It is contrary to the very concept of human rights to suppress communication of crucial public health information. “Public safety” demands freedom and political accountability.  Without that accountability, our communities put at risk. Sharing information quickly, as the Congolese authorities are doing, is what responsible governments do and failing to do so can be deadly.

History proves that leaders who are truly transparent, accountable, and responsive to criticism better protect the safety and flourishing of the families and communities that they serve. Democracies like Germany and the United States have been open and honest about not only the grim statistics, but also the aggressive tactics they are employing to fight the virus. Taiwan and South Korea were among the first to record infections outside of Wuhan, and quickly managed to prevent run-away outbreaks without resorting to oppression and fear.

As Americans, we are proud that our public and private sectors – in an “All of America” approach – have already marshaled resources to help the fight against COVID-19. Since the outbreak began, the U.S. government has committed $775 million in assistance. American businesses, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and individuals have given at least $3 billion in donations and assistance.

In the DRC, the United States is working hand-in-hand with President Tshisekedi and the government to support a healthy Congolese population, one of the four key pillars of the U.S.-DRC Privileged Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (#PP4PP). To date, we have announced $17.4 million in assistance to combat COVID-19 in the DRC, which will support partner agencies to provide lifesaving assistance, including activities to prevent and control infections in health facilities, strengthen disease surveillance and train health personnel. We are also supporting community engagement efforts by working with partner NGOs to raise awareness through radio programs, newsletters and public debates

There is profound wisdom in the African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Our American communities face the same suffering and the same challenges as yours. In times of crises, you can count on your friends and that is why the United States is committed to doing more together with the DRC to overcome this virus. We do so because the American people are generous and because it is in all our interests to fight common enemies like pandemic diseases. We have a history of assisting the DRC against Ebola, cholera, measles, malaria, and HIV, and now we are working together against Coronavirus. We will overcome this crisis by reaffirming that which makes us human and free:  honest and transparent communication, creative collaboration, and genuine accountability to our loved ones and communities. #TousEnsemble