TIME is running out to contain the crisis caused by the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Christian Aid has said, as it has overwhelmed the country’s health structure.
Speaking last week, the charity’s acting country manager in the DRC, Esperant Mulumba, called it a “crisis of grave proportions”. On Tuesday, the head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called it a “global wake-up call” to the risk of disease outbreaks occurring in areas neglected by the global community owing to conflict.
The outbreak of the virus in the north-east of the DRC, is the second-worst in history: 2400 cases have been confirmed cases, and there have been 1412 deaths in a year.
The Archbishop of Congo, the Most Revd Masimango Katanda, said this week that the Church was attempting to raise awareness of the Ebola virus.
“The Church in the area of Ebola outbreak is involved in raising awareness among the community about the reality of the disease, to fight the rumours that the virus isn’t real, and other information concerning Ebola and the way to tackle it.
“Churches have set up different points for hand-washing and temperature checks, and are also working alongside the humanitarian agencies involved in the crisis.”
On Monday, the Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, called on the World Health Organization to declare an international emergency in the DRC, after he had visited the country.
He told The Guardian: “We are on the edge with this crisis. We keep pulling it back from the brink, but it is very dangerous. The very worst-case scenario is if it broke out of the numbers that you could vaccinate.
“Due to the insecurity, areas that appeared cleared of the disease, such as Beni, have seen the population struck again.”
Dr Ghebreyesus retorted: “There are some people who say we need to declare the outbreak as an [emergency] to mobilise resources. That’s really wrong. Resources should be available to prevent needing to declare a PHEIC [public health emergency of international concern]. Preparedness is the solution, not firefighting.”
The crisis has been made more difficult owing to an ongoing conflict in north-east DRC, where militia groups are fighting.
Archbishop Katanda explained: “The Ebola outbreak is located in an active conflict zone, with dozens of armed groups jostling for control in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. The area also sits close to major transport and trade routes to Rwanda, South Sudan, and Uganda.
“Rebels from those countries operated in the area before the outbreak, killing thousands of people who have been neglected by the Government and the international communities.
“But, with Ebola, they saw hundreds of international organisations move into the same conflict area with millions of dollars to assist the victims of Ebola, not the victims of the army groups. For the local population, it is seen as injustice, and makes them think that Ebola is their way to make money. These tensions lead to violence against workers.”
The Archbishop called for a multi-targeted approach to help the region: tackling the Ebola virus and assisting the victims of the violence in the area.
He continued: “I suspect local workers could be also behind the violence as a way to raise awareness of their employment situation, which is not so good according to information in their communities. The government must work very hard, quickly, to build trust in the affected community.”
Mr Mulumba said: “The Ebola virus has overwhelmed our fragile health infrastructure, in a country where more than 12 million people already desperately need humanitarian aid. To make matters worse, the epidemic has hit a region blighted by instability, armed violence, widespread displacement, and food shortages.
“For a range of reasons, there has been denial about the existence of Ebola among some communities, leading to widespread mistrust in the health system and resistance to health workers — even attacks, in some cases. This has made it incredibly difficult for agencies, including our own Ministry of Health, to run an effective Ebola operation. All these factors have seriously undermined efforts to curb the outbreak.”
Archbishop Katanda also called for education about the virus to be incorporated into primary and secondary schools, and churches. It is an issue for the whole country, he argued.
Dr Ghebreyesus said: “The political problems [in the DRC] have broken the whole system — social, economic, and so on. And, to be honest, when I talk to the community, it is embarrassing for me, because they say, ‘You are only interested in Ebola because you do not want it in your own countries, and you are trying to protect yourselves while mothers and children are dying here.’”
After his visit, Mr Stewart said: “We were in a health-care clinic this morning where they have to build an entire sandbag area; so, when the armed groups come in and start shooting, the health-care workers can hide.
“This is an area where most of the work has to go into convincing the health-care workers even to wear their protective clothing, to convince villagers to come forward to be vaccinated, as well as to convince armed groups not to kill doctors. We are struggling to keep up with this.”
Mr Mulumba said: “From Christian Aid’s experiences of supporting the Ebola response in Sierra Leone a few years ago, we know that faith leaders play a distinctive — and often unsung — role in responding to emergencies such as these. They are trusted and respected members of their community: in the midst of confusion, fear, and panic, people often turn to them for guidance. Yet, in Sierra Leone, many humanitarian agencies were too slow to involve faith leaders in the response. We are working in DRC to put the lessons learned in Sierra Leone into action.”