YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A retired bishop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has become the first African bishop to die from COVID-19.
Bishop Gérard Mulumba Kalemba, 82, the emeritus bishop of Mweka in the Kasai Province, died on April 15 and was buried the next day at the Saint Kaggwa Seminary cemetery in the capital, Kinshasa.
The funeral was closed to the public but was attended by family members, including his nephew, Congolese President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi. Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, presided at the liturgy.
Father Donatien Nshole, the Secretary General of the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO), praised Mulumba Kalemba in a statement.
“I knew him as a priest and bishop. My first contact with him as priest was in 1985. I was a seminarian on internship at Inongo and he came to preach a retreat to our sisters. He was rector of the major seminary. I discovered in him a very friendly and very sensitive man and a pastor,” Nshole said.
“I later found out that Bishop Mulumba lived with the orphans and the children in his bishopric. It was really a family atmosphere,” he continued.
Bruno Miteyo Nyenge, the former director of Caritas DRC, often worked with the deceased bishop.
“In his diocese, Bishop Gérard Mulumba Kalemba embodied in his person the simplicity of the great and the wisdom of the master. His life offered to the services of others did not prevent him from remaining very attentive and close to his family. He was a unifying bishop, quick to listen and always concerned for the poor,” Miteyo Nyenge said.
“Like all human beings, he also experienced moments of grief and great affliction. He even sometimes shut himself up in prayers and lamentations, all in a burst of faith and abandonment to the One who had called him to give his whole life to his service, God Our Father.”
Mulumba Kalemba was the brother of Étienne Tshisekedi, who led the opposition in the country for decades and served as prime minister three times, and the uncle of the current president.
In May last year, the then-retired bishop was appointed Chief of Civil House by his nephew. In this role, he managed the logistics of running the official residences and private presidential sites.
Despite this later role, Mulumba Kalemba had avoided the political life pursued by the rest of his family and concentrated on the Church. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1967 and became Bishop of Mweka in 1989.
Due to his brother’s political activities, he was often the target of harassment by the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko.
“Because of my brother’s identity, there has always been suspicion and slander towards me,” the bishop would later recall. “I was arrested several times!”
Mulumba Kalemba’s death is highlighting the strain the COVID-19 coronavirus is putting on the DRC.
There have been 332 confirmed cases of the disease in the country, with 25 deaths, although the true number is probably far higher.
The current pandemic comes on the heels of an Ebola epidemic that began in 2018; the World Health Organization had planned on an April 12 announcement of the official end of the disease in the country, but a new case was reported in the city of Beni on April 10, with two additional cases reported in the following days.
This means health authorities in the country will have to grapple with both COVID-19 and Ebola at the same time, while also fighting the world’s worst measles epidemic.
Unlike Ebola, which kills about half of the people it infects, the new coronavirus causes mostly mild or moderate symptoms in about 80 percent of people. Spreading Ebola typically requires an exchange of bodily fluids, and people have often been infected when caring for loved ones or mourning in traditional funerals that involve close contact with the body. In contrast, the new coronavirus is far more contagious and mostly spread by people coughing or sneezing, including those with only mild flu-like symptoms.
That means the task of controlling the virus’ spread in Congo will be massive: The government has only limited control in parts of the vast country, there are also some dense population centers with poor sanitation and infrastructure, and the country’s mineral-rich east is beset by violence from various armed groups.
This article used material from the Associated Press.