YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – — With world attention turned to the Coronavirus that has so far killed at least 50,000 people with a further one million infected, very few people noticed the landmark achievements in the fight against Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
For a country also battling devastating measles and cholera outbreaks, as well as raging conflicts to the east of the country, the fact that no other case of Ebola has been recorded since February 17 means the worst Ebola outbreak in decades may finally be winding down. The World Health Organization says if the situation remains unchanged, it may declare the DRC an Ebola-free country as early as April 12.
The Ebola strain that broke out in August 2018 has killed more than 2,200 people, and the milestone so far achieved shouldn’t go unnoticed. It could offer lessons on how to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak, which, to date, has killed 13 people in the DRC and recorded 134 cases.
Catholic Relief Services – the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic US Catholic bishops – says the fight against Ebola has been instructive in the way it is tackling the coronavirus, even if the two outbreaks aren’t the same.
“Our interventions surrounding the Ebola Virus Disease in northeastern DRC taught us a great deal about the importance of messaging and information sharing at the community level,” Ghislain Mukana, Program Manager, Integrated Health, Catholic Relief Services, Democratic Republic of the Congo, told Crux.
“Specifically, messaging should be disseminated not only using traditional channels such as television or print news media but should increasingly take place through WhatsApp and social media networks such as Facebook or Instagram. A broad variety of avenues for messaging will ensure that accurate and appropriate information will reach the largest cross section of the population possible.”
He said CRS’ experience in community engagement and social mobilization position the agency well to bring useful messages to communities impacted by outbreaks and to encourage acceptance of new solutions and practices to mitigate the impact of such viruses.
“CRS and our partners played an important role in mitigating the spread of Ebola in 2015 and we are well positioned to educate communities with accurate information about prevention and to assist public health departments to reduce transmission, “explained Jennifer Overton, CRS Regional Director – West Africa.
It’s an argument echoed by Ida Sawyer, Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director for Africa.
“As Congo now grapples with COVID-19, its troubled experience fighting Ebola highlights the importance of effective communication, community engagement, and comprehensive care, even in the most challenging environments,” she wrote on the HRW website.
She said residents in Eastern DRC where the outbreak was most felt reacted with suspicion towards aid agencies battling the health emergency especially as similar attention was never given to other crises and the conflicts in the area.
This attitude was worsened by sometimes inadequate and conflicting information that at best confused people. COVID-19 has also come with rumors that Africans are more resistant to the virus and need not over burden themselves with the challenges of prevention.
Ghislain Mukana says the rumor has also circulated in the DRC, but “the appearance of the first cases of infection and death in Kinshasa, the local transmission of the virus, and the impact of the virus on public personalities has already helped to dispel this rumor.
As in previous outbreaks, such rumors can be combated by the proactive sharing of accurate information and by providing examples that contradict the rumor.”
He noted, though, that fighting COVID-19 was finding a more responsive population, and this has to do with the nature of the outbreak.
“Unlike Ebola, which was more localized, COVID-19 is a pandemic and people are quickly recognizing the severity of the situation. Communities have had time to observe what is happening elsewhere in terms of the speed with which the virus spreads and the prevention measures adopted to fight the virus. My view is that populations in the DRC will be more receptive to prevention messages surrounding COVID-19 than they have been in areas that have been affected by Ebola,” he told Crux.
The country’s government has put in place a raft of measures to reduce, possibly stop the spread of the virus. These include:
- Suspension of all international flights
- Preventive measures at air, sea and land borders, including hand washing, temperature controls, and completion of travel forms
- Mandatory quarantine for arrivals who present signs of COVID-19
- Surveillance measures for internal travelers in the DRC
- Prohibition of meetings of more than 20 people
- Closure of Schools, universities and colleges for 4 weeks
- Suspension of religious congregations for 4 weeks
- Suspension of sports activities in stadiums and other sports venues
- Prohibition of the opening of night clubs, bars, cafés and restaurants
- Prohibition of wakes and funerals
Mukana says while “there is a generalized awareness of the virus and a corresponding adoption of preventive measures recommended by the government,’ there are however areas of difficulty that still constrain the fight.
“For example, local taxi bus drivers in Kinshasa vary in their compliance with passenger limits and others have compensated for drop in passengers by raising their fares. Another area of concern is the lack of specific prevention measures at open air public markets, which can be quite congested and where there may not be central entrances or exits for the easy introduction of preventive measures,” Mukana told Crux.