Regimes of Covid-19 testing in Eastern Congo

All air travels and border crossings in the DRC require a Covid test. No traveller can evade this requirement. In Kinshasa, the capital, there are several testing centers, some of which are private and accredited by the National Institute for Biomedical Research (INRB). Generally, tests are mostly performed in larger cities, places close to borders or with a high level of mobility of people towards a nearby border, and cities with airports, such as Kisangani, Bunia, Lubumbashi or Mbuji-Mayi.

In the Covid-19 pandemic, borders have become complex and diverse regimes of testing. When I arrived in Kasindi, I was struck how testing is done here. Kasindi is one of the very active border towns with significant trade activities between Uganda and the DRC. Like at any other border post, the police is in the customs office and the immigration officers do their usual routines. But once you present your Covid test certificate, the officer does not look you in the face or ask you for your identity card. He pulls out his phone, scans the QR code, and has immediately all necessary information about you. “I explained to everyone that Goma is the center of the country (and not Kinshasa, note KW)… You see, they put the QR code on and we here know how to read it,” as the agent explains to me. Nothing else and we can cross over to the Uganda to receive a visa for entering the country. But not all Covid certificate issued in North Kivu have the QR code yet. It is only the laboratories in Goma and Kasindi, which use the QR code and have the technical capacities to scan them. Yet unlike in Goma, in Kasindi you only have to wait for 2 hours to get your test result. There is no bureaucracy making you wait for 24 hours, 48 hours or more as in some testing centers in North Kivu. In Beni, it takes 48 hours, in Butembo and Goma a minimum of 24 hours.

In Kasindi, apart from the short waiting time, your Covid test result bears your identity photo. This is something that all other centers in Eastern DRC have failed to do. In Kasindi, after taking a sample, the person is also photographed using a mobile phone. The image goes with the sample and will appear on the test certificate. This measure, as it was explained to me, aims to inhibit any attempt to cheat. If a traveler tries to steal a valid sample from a friend or family member, the picture will show it.

Efforts of private individuals, not the state

The facility at the Kasindi border post is the result of the efforts of private Congolese operators. Indeed, at the beginning of the pandemic, travelers had to undergo an unbelievably long procedure. Several people interviewed at Kasindi told me and my colleagues that they had to cross the border without any migration documents just to go to Uganda for doing a Covid test. No sampling or testing facilities existed on the Congolese side. The nearest laboratory on the Congolese side was in Goma (more than 500 km from Kasindi). The testing in Uganda was also very expensive. People were paying up to 70 dollars for a test. In addition, they had to wait up to 2 weeks to get the results because the samples were sent to Kampala. Interestingly, it took the efforts of a private entrepreneur and not the state to set up testing facilities at a border, which is highly frequented because it is the only passage for Congolese who travel to Uganda but also to Tanzania, Kenya, and even Asian countries. A public-private partnership has eased the burden on travelers. “A businessman approached the PNHF (programme national d’hygiène aux frontières) and offered to buy his equipment with his own funds. A public-private partnership was concluded and to this day, the investor continues to reinforce his equipment. Hence, we have never been overburdened, and we provide reliable results on time,“ explained an agent at the laboratory. The lesson is that private individuals with good will can support the state, when the means are not available and ease people’s lives in the remote borders far away from the centers of decision-making.

The only remaining difficulty are the costs of visas. Previously, the inhabitants of Kasindi had the right to travel 25 km into Ugandan territory with an identity card only and without paying for a visa. This applied to Ugandans in the town of Bwera Custom, too. They also had the right to enter up to 25 km into Congolese territory without a visa. Since the Covid-19 tests have been introduced, this right has been withdrawn from all citizens of both countries. Now, there is an obligation to buy all migration documents (if you don't have a passport) and this includes paying for a visa. Yet, sociologically, the people of Kasindi have their brothers on the other side of Uganda right across the border. Even basic foodstuffs and manufactured goods are imported directly by small Congolese traders in the border town of Bwera.

Different prices

Compared to Goma, (a large border city of over 1 million inhabitants and the capital of North Kivu province) where the bulk of the Covid test service is in the hands of the public authorities, it must be said that the borders are not the same. The city has 3 sample collection centers and in all 3 centers, although public, the prices are different. At the big barrier to enter the DRC and at the airport in Goma you have to pay 45 US dollars, while at the laboratory located at the blood bank, the cost of the same test is 40 dollars. However, in the other cities of the DRC, from Kinshasa to Bunia, through Kisangani, the price of the test is 30 dollars. And you'd think that's the standard. Even in Kasindi, in the last two months the price has dropped from 40 to 30 US dollars. And that's not all. If you have to cross the border from DRC to Rwanda from Goma, the bureaucracy will make you miss everything. First you have to make sure you have your test done at one of the collection centers in the city of Goma. At the “Grand Barrier”, as the border between the DRC and Rwanda is called, the test certificate conducted elsewhere, even the one in Kasindi, are systematically rejected by border health officials. The QR code is not used here. What counts is a test certificate from Goma only. Finally, upon arriving in Goma, any traveler entering the airport from an international flight must take a new test called an arrival test. You pay 45 USD for the test, but there is no guarantee that you will get the result, which they promise will be available the next day at 2 p.m. The Kasindi laboratory, which is privately owned and works in partnership with the state, does not have to go through this bureaucratic hassle and accepts any other test done elsewhere. All this at the cheapest price in the whole province of North Kivu. In addition, you have your result in record time in a secure format by a QR and your photo.

Testing Regimes/Border Regimes

For travelers who travel within the DRC, only by air, travelers by other means of travel are not subject to Covid test, it is necessary to ensure compliance with useful measures, before the trip, taking into account the constraints related to:

  1. The time between sample collection and delivery of results varies between cities.
  2. The cost of testing differ from one test center to another.
  3. The validity of the test: The national regulation requires that a test certificate should be valid for 14 days. But this rule depends on the geographical location within the country. There is no difference between Kinshasa, the capital, and the interior of the country. Between the different cities in the interior, for example between Kisangani and Goma, two different provincial capitals, a test is valid for 7 days, especially if you leave from Goma where the rules are different. From 14 days recognized by the Ministry of Health, the validity of the test is reduced to 7 days, without explanation. So, 7 days later, you have to take the test again to leave Goma, whereas elsewhere the 14-day validity is respected. The traveler is subject to a new test after this period. Worse, if you have crossed a border and want to return to Goma, the validity of the test is reduced from 14 days to only 3 days.

For international travelers who have to leave the DRC via Goma, whether by air or land, it is necessary to have strong nerves. Notably, in times of digitization, the test results are delivered by hand. You have to pick them up at the local NBRI office and at least 24 hours after the sample is taken, with the fateful phrase: „results tomorrow at 2pm“. Do not ask for an explanation, this is the rule. In Kasindi this is not the case. It is easier. You have a maximum of 2 hours to get your result which will not be questioned anywhere and to cross a border with the DRC and even in the internal cities of the country.