Why the world needs to care about the deadly Ebola virus spreading through the Democratic Republic of Congo
The world’s second largest viral epidemic on record is happening right now – and it’s not linked to COVID-19.
More than two thousand people have died in the African nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo since August, 2018 due to a rare virus that is often fatal; it’s death rate is upwards of 90% in humans.
It’s called Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever.
At the beginning of June 2020, the World Health Organization reported the 11thoutbreak of Ebola in the Congo since the virus was first discovered in the country in 1976. The rate of transmission so high that, even attending a funeral can put one at risk of contracting the virus.
But Ebola is not the only virus that has attacked the Congo.
Since 2019, more than 300,000 people have been infected by measles killing more than 6,7000 due to the childhood infection that has been treated by a vaccine in Canada since 1998.
And, while the central African nation has seen far less COVID-19 related deaths than Canada (117 deaths at the time of writing this) – the epidemiological emergency in this country is startling – and deserves global attention.
Context spoke with Anne-Marie Connor, World Vision DRC’s national director. WV Congo’s goal is to create lasting change in the lives of children, families, and communities to overcome poverty and injustice.
Originally from Sarnia, Ontario, Connor, who has lived in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC for eight years, chose to stay there when the COVID-19 global pandemic broke earlier this year.
Here is what she is observing and experiencing:
Q: Why did you personally want to move to the DRC?
At first, it was a professional growth opportunity, but as I support and lead in various ways, it has been a personal joy to see children go to school where they would not have had a chance; families take up improved and productive cropping methods; communities embrace behaviours that keep them safe from diseases like Ebola or even COVID-19. Our team has 500 dedicated staff, 475 of whom are Congolese aiming to make life better for vulnerable children throughout the country.
Q: Describe the work you are doing there with World Vision?
I lead and influence our organization in DRC to create environments that facilitate improvement of child wellbeing by ensuring children are educated for life, enjoy good health, are participating, are protected and cared for, in a context where they experience the love of God and neighbor. I need to emphasise that DRC, one of the poorest countries in the world, presents with multiple humanitarian contexts including conflict and resulting consequences like people displacements; ongoing health crises like COVID-19, the world’s second largest Ebola outbreak, the worst measles epidemic, and a stubborn food crisis. I oversee a team of more than 500 staff engaged in relief, advocacy, and development interventions in one of the most difficult countries to grow up as a child.
Q: Describe how you saw Ebola affect the nation this second time around?
First, it was disheartening news when we learnt that there was a new case of Ebola a day from the date the country was to be declared Ebola free. For the communities it was unbelievable, and it brought back conversations of conspiracy, causing agitation and community riots. For the health workers that were refocusing their attention to COVID-19 it was double jeopardy now having to deal with the two most lethal pathogens! Other than the pressure on health workers, and cost implications, there is the impact of this all on children. Children are at home worried that they will be exposed to the coronavirus if they go out, then they hear of the return of Ebola, in contexts that still witness spikes of violent conflicts. They often find themselves confused, worried, isolated and fearful.
Q: Do you have stories of how Ebola affected families (firsthand accounts)
There is, a young mother of a two-year old baby in Butembo -the only two survivors of their family, after Ebola claimed five other family members. She lost her husband, mother-in-law and other close relatives. After learning that Ebola had infected a member of the family, the pastor visited and shared tips on how to avoid contracting the virus and implored them to take the vaccine. She followed her pastor’s advice and she believes that is the reason she is still alive. “Without my pastor, I’d be dead today,” she says. The pastor and others engaged by the program have also worked with communities to stop Ebola survivors from experiencing stigma. Unfortunately, unlike Ebola, COVID-19 is still without a vaccine.
Q: And then after almost two years of fighting the second largest Ebola outbreak things changed radically with the reemergence of the virus and a new virus called Covid-19. How have you seen Covid impact the DRC?
**numbers have changed since we initially spoke**Currently we have 2833 cases of COVID-19 in 7 out of 26 DRC, the majority of which (2,547) are in the capital Kinshasa. Health centres in Kinshasa are already overstretched, yet the numbers continue to raise, increasing the challenges of people dying from other easily manageable health conditions, in a country that is already battling the World’s worst measles epidemic. To address the crisis government established prevention measures like restrictions on movement and travel as well as closure of borders, schools and other public spaces like restaurants, worship places. These interventions have led to unprecedented economic challenges like spiraling food and general market prices, which is impacting livelihoods. As tensions rise children experience or are exposed to violence and other forms of child abuse like child labour, sexual exploitation.
Q: Now with Covid-19 – at last count 68 people have died in the nation due to Covid- of course we know there could be many more unaccounted for- what are you hearing as you are quarantining. (NUMBERS HAVE CHANGED SINCE)
Rumours are rife that this is a disease created by humans, and that it does not affect Africans as it does Caucasians. The end result of these attitudes is complacency, which exposes many to a disease seen as an invisible enemy, in an expansive country where the only testing centres are in the capital Kinshasa. We are seeing more and more community infections, which suggests there could be some unrecorded cases. There are 2 million people on the move, fleeing conflict, in DRC. They have extremely limited access to the basics and, as the Ebola response proved, it is incredibly challenging to reach people with services and information when there is fighting and insecurity.
Q: Why do you stay? I hear you had an opportunity to come home to Canada and you gave up your seat, why?
It would have looked like walking out on a team of dedicated staff and friends who are working hard to ensure that COVID-19 does not grossly affect the lives of children that we serve; giving up on a cause that is dear to me –saving children from early death and ensuring they not only survive but thrive. Donors are supporting our efforts to scale up preventive measures to stop/slow the spread of disease; Strengthen health systems and workers; Support children impacted by COVID-19 through education, child protection, food and livelihoods, as well as engage, collaborate and advocate to ensure children are protected and reached by the global response. I am glad I remained behind to be part of the emerging story of change.