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Ex-Congo public health minister accused of COVID-19 fraud

August 27, 2021 GMT

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Authorities arrested Congo’s former public health minister, Dr. Eteni Longondo, late Friday following allegations he misappropriated more than $1 million in funds allocated by the World Bank to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Longondo, who has maintained his innocence, was taken to the central prison of Makala following an hours-long court proceeding in Kinshasa, according to Inspector General of Finance Jules Alingeti.

It was not immediately known what specific charges Longondo faced or whether he had retained a lawyer.

The alleged acts of mismanagement came to light during investigations carried out at the Ministry of Health and the Central Bank of Congo, Alingeti said.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Longondo had sharply denied the allegations, stating that there has “never been any misappropriation of funds from Covid-19 at the Ministry of Health.”

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Longondo had been appointed as health minister in 2019 and managed the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Congo prior to being replaced in April.

Congo has seen more than 54,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including 1,053 deaths, though those figures are widely considered to be a vast underestimate because testing remains limited.

Vaccination efforts also faltered when the country decided not to use donated AstraZenica vaccines because of concerns about whether it was linked to fatal blood clots. The campaign has since resumed, though misinformation and apprehension about COVID-19 vaccines remains high.

Health officials also have had to grapple with other serious health crises including a measles epidemic that killed more than 7,000 people between 2019 and August 2020, and an Ebola outbreak earlier this year in Butembo.

In 2019, police arrested another former public health minister accused of misappropriating funds. Oly Ilunga denied embezzling any funds during a previous Ebola epidemic in eastern Congo, but was sentenced to five years in prison and has vowed to appeal the verdict.

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Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.