A year after the outbreak of Ebola in eastern Congo, the government and aid organizations have still not succeeded in bringing the disease under control. There are many reasons for this, says Dirke Köpp.
This Thursday marks a sad anniversary. One year ago, on August 1, 2018, the Ebola epidemic broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With a death toll today of almost 1,800, it has become one of the worst epidemics since Ebola was discovered in 1976. The worst occurred in 2014, when the virus caused the deaths of more than 11,000 people in several countries in West Africa.
This is the 10th Ebola outbreak in Congo. This time, the virus is proving more resistant to efforts to halt its progress. This is largely due to the area where the outbreak started. The provinces of Ituri and North Kivu in the east are among the vast country’s most neglected regions. Militias have been in control for decades, their rule marked by rape, murder and arson. There are many internally displaced persons, and clashes between Congolese security forces and armed groups have hindered the work of aid organizations. Sick people often avoid going to see the doctor, afraid of being caught between the rival forces.
Government shows little interest
Human life is not worth much in eastern Congo, Ebola victims are realizing. Although there is considerable aid from abroad, the Congolese government has shown little interest in helping those of its citizens affected by the virus.
This lack of interest was also demonstrated recently in a different context. In a desperate bid to draw attention to the daily violence they face, against which they feel powerless, people in the provincial capital, Bunia, processed through the streets, bearing the head of a woman who had been decapitated. Their cry for help left the government cold. Those hoping for an official reaction from those in power in the capital, Kinshasa, 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) away, waited in vain. When contacted by DW for a reaction, the interior minister simply said the demonstration was fake news.
However, the people living in the regions affected by Ebola are also contributing to the failure to bring the outbreak to an end. Many are poorly educated, and distrust modern medicine and the foreigners who have come to help. They are afraid of the medication and vaccinations. Helpers are frequently prevented from entering villages, sometimes they are even attacked. This dramatically low level of education is also a result of neglect and decadeslong war. Poor infrastructure also plays a role; many streets and medical centers are in a disastrous condition.
Many of the country’s decision-makers are also poorly educated and not sufficiently informed in order to do their role justice. In fact, it was a priest who brought the virus to Goma, a city with a population of some 2 million, in July. Although the man was already showing symptoms of the disease, he traveled by bus.
WHO reaction too late
Mobility is also part of the problem. The province of North Kivu is a major transit hub bordering on both Uganda and Rwanda. It’s regrettable that the World Health Organization took such a long time to declare an international emergency, waiting until mid-July, almost a year after the outbreak began.
Now there is rivalry between pharmaceutical companies and arguments over which vaccine should be used. Everyone wants to benefit from the situation, said Congo’s health minister, before he threw in the towel some 10 days ago. It’s unclear whether his resignation was a result of the “pressure from all sides” which he had criticized, or his own inability to bring the epidemic under control. What is clear is that Ebola will soon have taken the lives of 1,800 people.