DR Congo: Violence, Distrust And The Stalling Fight Against Ebola
Statistics of casualties arising from Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo are startling. Africa’s failure to overcome the outbreak so far has seen it evolve into the second-deadliest in recorded history, trailing an epidemic between 2013-2016 that killed about 11,300 people in West Africa as it surged through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
On Saturday, DR Congo’s health ministry made a shocking revelation that the death toll from Ebola outbreak in the country has surpassed 1,000- a disclosure that showed the country’s fight against the epidemic, has largely been unsuccessful.
The recent records are unarguably indication of the DRC’s worsening health conditions, given the country is also suffering from an outbreak of measles which has killed more than 1,000 people, with 50,000 cases reported. WHO staff have confirmed measles in 14 of the country’s 26 provinces, in both rural and urban areas.
The WHO has quashed claims of a global spread of the epidemic. It nonetheless, said that the possibility of cases spreading to neighboring countries are high- a development that has generated a fear-enveloped atmosphere.
While this is not the first time the country would witness Ebola outbreak. Statistics show the recent outbreak, which started in August last year, is the tenth in DR Congo. However, the recent outbreak has appeared more sophisticated and complex affecting a larger population.
As it stands, DRC’s chances of winning the battle against Ebola are slim, given the widespread distrust and attacks on health workers in the tumultuous eastern part of the country.
While addressing journalists in Geneva, Switzerland, World Health Organization’s Deputy Director, Dr. Michael Ryan recently announced that mistrust and violence was harming efforts to tackle the disease as it spread through the east of the country. “We still face major issues of community acceptance and trust,” he said.
There have been 119 documented attacks on medical centres and staff since January, according to Dr. Ryan, adding that WHO staff anticipated “continued intense transmission”.
Christoph Vogel, a former UN expert on the DRC and a researcher with the UK-based London School of Economics’ Conflict Research Programme, said there were a “host of different factors” complicating the medical response and warned the recent attacks showed the climate on the ground was “extremely poisoned”.
“It (the outbreak) is happening in an area that has witnessed entrenched armed conflict, massive violence and all sorts of distrust between different actors, communities and elites; this is probably the central factor that makes the outbreak so hard to tackle compared to other ones,” Vogel told Al Jazeera.
Health ministry spokeswoman Jessica Ilunga said the surge in cases was the result of attacks on health workers and treatment centres disrupting “response activities” in recent weeks.
“Security has been a big issue, and every time we have an incident, essential response activities such as contact tracing, vaccination, and safe burials are suspended for an indefinite period of time, giving time and space for the virus to spread,” Ilunga told Al Jazeera.
“The majority of violence against the medical response is community violence, for instance when Ebola responders go to family homes because they have been alerted someone has died … but when responders arrive some people chase them away,” Ilunga said.
“But the attacks on the Ebola treatment centres are more coordinated, by some kind of organised armed groups,” she added. “It is worrying, especially because the future of the outbreak depends on factors outside of our, the Ministry of Health’s control.”