On August 1, the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo turned one year old. During this time, more than 1800 people died from the disease, which made the current outbreak the second largest number of victims in history. In July 2019, the World Health Organization declared the emergency situation in Congo – this means that the spread of the virus has not yet been stopped.
Local play a significant role in the crisis: they regularly attack medical centers and specialists working there who have come to the country voluntarily. Residents of the Congo do not trust the authorities, which have lost their reputation amid violent clashes with partisans, and are afraid of humanitarian workers.
After the massacres in Congo, residents no longer trust the government, and with the advent of Ebola, doctors and volunteers
Since 2013, serial killings have begun in the northeastern city of Beni in the province of North Kivu . Unknown people attacked passers-by and brutally cracked down on them, mainly using a machete. Soon, a relatively peaceful region became a place of concentration of fear and paranoia, and by October 2014 the death toll from unknown attacks reached 800 people.
Thanks to the investigation of human rights activists, it turned out that several rival groups were behind the massacre, who wanted to destabilize and subjugate the region. A series of murders was launched by the ADF group, which collaborated with terrorists from the Islamic State, but then smaller partisan organizations joined the violence.
Later, the Congo authorities intervened in the situation, sending the national guard. However, this not only did not stop the violence, but also rekindled it with renewed vigor. Soldiers participated in massacres of civilians. By 2016, they began to kill much less frequently, but most of the suspects remained at large, follows from the report of human rights activists.
Congo authorities have not admitted allegations that they used the army in massacres to regain control in the region. Moreover, the opposition massacre , dissidents and local officials mostly went to jail in the massacre case .
In 2018, when Ebola arrived in the Congo, residents of Beni and the surrounding regions did not forget about a series of massacres. The fear of time did not go away from their memory, when after the attacks of unknown people dozens of corpses remained on the streets, and the authorities either ignored what was happening or ignored the real state of affairs. This condition resulted in paranoia and aggression, which faced those who had nothing to do with attacks – volunteers and doctors.
When the epidemic escalated, Congo resident Janvier Mandefu quit farming and went to work to bury ebola-infected bodies. He and his team were afraid not so much of illness as of relatives of the dead. Mandefu interrupted burial work many times because of broken and frightened people: they accused volunteers of stealing the bodies of their loved ones and threatened with reprisal.
In April 2019, Mandefu buried a three-year-old Ebola victim. During the burial, a local resident took out a hand grenade and demanded to interrupt the process, threatening to undermine himself and the workers. The body was eventually thrown to the ground. Employees of medical centers also face violence, where they store ebola vaccines and contain infected ones. These institutions were repeatedly set ablaze, and their employees, including foreign doctors, were killed.
In especially infected areas, the greatest pressure is exerted on volunteers. Therefore, due to fear for the employees of the organization, part of the personnel was evacuated from such zones. Often, residents are afraid of fraud and are not allowed into the house of doctors who want to pick up the body of the deceased from Ebola. If earlier volunteers called the police, which, under the threat of arrest, forced them to let physicians go, now they have abandoned this practice.
“The new protocol says to quit the body. Locals will learn the lesson when they fall ill, ” said volunteer Philemon Kalondero.
Such pessimism did not come immediately. When the epidemic just started , doctors and volunteers with extensive experience in ebola control arrived in Congo. Many of them knew how to act: in 2013, they participated in the suppression of the virus in West Africa, when more than 11 thousand people died.
However, the spread of the disease in the first months did not stop. She reached the eastern city of Matango, and from there to Beni, where about 350 thousand people live. Local politicians and residents met the suspicious news about the disease and suggested that the virus had been spread by authorities to continue to kill people.
This and similar versions turned out to be so popular that by the beginning of 2019, only 2% of respondents in North Kivu said they trusted the government. More than seven million people live in the region. “Honestly, I don’t believe that the Beni killings and the current illness are unrelated,” said Crispin Mitondo, a member of the Congo National Assembly in the fall of 2018.
UN and WHO prepare for intensified ebola control in Congo, but local authorities do not seek to help
In December 2018, the Congo was preparing for the first presidential election in many years, which many critics of the country’s leadership have relied on. There was a tense atmosphere in the opposition regions, since the vote was planned back in 2016, but the then leadership postponed it.
Before the election, the government closed polling stations in several regions, including Beni, where opposition sentiments had long been formed due to an Ebola outbreak. Although the Ministry of Health stated that this is not required. As a result, hundreds of dissatisfied took to the streets, who set fire to the medical centers for the treatment of the virus. From this began a wave of open hatred of the region’s residents for such humanitarian sites.
The authorities, trying to keep the situation under control, allowed the police and soldiers to accompany the volunteers who went home for vaccination, and in case of an attack, shoot to kill.
Even if the attackers are local residents who do not want to give up the body of the deceased native, fearing that it will be defiled. The force method has led residents of the Congo to perceive medical centers as places where people are sent not to be treated, but to die.
Fear and aggression spread further. In February 2019, near the city of Butembo , an ebola treatment center was burned , which was organized by doctors without borders. In place of the ashes left a message: “In the future we plan something even more ambitious than this.” Patients survived the fire, but in fear fled in unknown directions, only spreading the disease.
In April in Butembo, unidentified men broke into a university hospital and shot a WHO volunteer. The perpetrators of this murder, like many others, were not found. Many doctors and medical volunteers do not understand who is organizing these attacks, and the authorities in almost all cases keep aloof.
Humanitarian specialists in the Congo are sure that the equipment of medical centers and current vaccines allow, if not treating everyone with ebola, then effectively suppressing its spread and saving many people. That is why the distrust of residents plays such an important role in the further spread of fever. According to the Ministry of Health, more than 40% of Ebola patients ignore government calls to go to medical centers and die at home, infecting the rest of the family.
In July 2019, the UN and WHO recognized the situation in Congo as “emergency” and promised to begin “intensive work” to stop the spread of ebola. Organizations plan to vaccinate almost all residents of the country, and not just those who came into contact with the sick.
The authorities of nearby countries fear that the disease will penetrate them. In Rwanda, about three thousand border guards were vaccinated. Similar measures were taken in Uganda, where an outbreak was recorded in July.
Similar stories have already happened : an Ebola-suffering family from Congo escaped from a border center in the hope of hiding in another country. At least two people, including an elderly woman and a child, have passed away. The fate of the rest is unknown.
In addition, the Congo government has formed an independent anti-ebola agency. Previously, the authority belonged to the Ministry of Health, but after the resignation of its head, Oly Ilunga, the situation changed.
Humanitarian services have long been waiting for this decision because of the official’s reputation. The investigation into the head of the Ministry of Health said that he often used budget funds irrationally. For example, while visiting infection zones, he rented luxury rooms in hotels and rented expensive cars, while many doctors in the civil service lost their salaries.
The country needs about $ 290 million to organize new ebola control measures, which the authorities plan to borrow from the World Bank (headquarters in Washington). The United States, which remains the main donor of funds for the fight against the virus in the Congo, has promised to allocate an additional $ 38 million. The authors of the new plan want to restore confidence in the population, organize mass vaccination, as well as the distribution of food and medicine.
On August 12, scientists testing new ebola vaccines in the Congo said thedisease was no longer “incurable.” In the past, about 70% of Congo residents who had fever and went to medical centers died due to ineffective treatment. Now, experts say, the survival rate in case of visiting the hospital will be 90%. With this, as planned, the fear of people who too often came across or heard stories about how people went to medical centers and died would also go away.
How exactly the authorities and volunteers plan to restore dialogue with local residents before they see the effect of new drugs is still unknown. According to Deutsche Welle, in the east of the Congo, human life “costs a little”, and the government is not interested in helping the victims of Ebola and the daily attacks that flooded the region due to the unstable situation.
According to media reports, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the epidemic, Bunia residents rallied and allegedly carried the severed head of a woman who had been killed by unknowns through the streets. Thus, the protesters allegedly hoped to draw the attention of the government to social and humanitarian crises. Later, in a conversation with the media, the Congo’s interior minister said the news about the demonstration was fiction.