The afternoon of May 13, five cases of suspected coronavirus were reported in Kisantu, Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have a convent and school. This comes seven months and two weeks after that same convent burned to the ground.
Sister Emily Mullen was there for both and is there still. She is a nurse, head of the Diocesan Office of Health Ministry, and helps oversee the local hospital. In the fire, in the middle of the night, she was on the second floor when flames broke out. She and the other Sisters organized a bucket brigade going up and down the steps, but the fire was too big.
There is a sense now that as with the fire, Covid-19 might be too big.
“A lot of people aren’t ready to really believe this is happening,” she says. “But it is happening.”
Over a thousand cases have been reported in the national capital of Kinshasa, 65 miles to the northeast, and an additional 50 in the province capital of Matadi.
In Kisantu, where Sister Emily is a member of the district task force charged with preparing for the virus, schools have been closed since March 20, including the Notre Dame schools attended by 1,500 students, 600 of whom prior to the closing lived on the convent grounds. The diocesan hospital has also been named as one of three Covid-19 reception points in Kongo Central Province, in which Kisantu lies.
“So far we’ve set aside eight beds,” Sister Emily says, “but I’m not sure eight is going to be enough.”
The task force is distributing facemasks, gathering personal protective equipment, and airing public service announcements on the radio. It’s also stressing frequent hand-washing among the populace, and along with the diocese has set out hand-washing stations at many of the food markets. The stations consist of a spigot attached to a two-gallon bucket.
“But who will refill the buckets?” says Sister Emily. “And the soap will be gone in an eye blink.”
And while the Sisters are wearing masks in public, limiting the number of visitors inside their compound and likewise making limited trips out, many in the community aren’t so vigilant.
“It’s challenging,” says Sister Emily. “Many people have to go to the market every day, so you see people on motorcycles, two or three on a motorcycle, and they’re supposed to be wearing masks, but they’re not.”
Funding to fight the virus is in part coming from Germany and the European Union, which are allowing previously designated funding to be redirected in light of the current crisis.
As for reconstruction of the convent, demolition of what was left after the fire has been completed, with excavations having begun in late April to dig out remnants of the old foundation, laid in 1900, to make way for its replacement. That work, however, is on hold due to the pandemic. In the meantime, the Sisters forced out by the fire continue to live in an adjacent guesthouse, preparing and contending as best they can while they wait to see which way the crisis goes.
“It could change drastically in a week,” says Sister Emily. “That’s my experience.”