New cases of Ebola found in urban areas over the past few days show the latest outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not yet under control and the next few weeks will be critical to containing the virus.
Despite a strong response, not enough is being done to help communities overcome understandable fears and a lack of knowledge about the disease. Conflict, which has plagued the eastern part of DRC for decades, could also still undermine efforts to contain the latest outbreak, which has claimed 90 lives since it began on 1 August.
Jose Barahona, Oxfam’s Country Director in the DRC, said fear within communities was making it difficult to provide help or act to prevent the spread of the disease – with people at times threatening health workers or humanitarians.
“Many people don’t know who to trust, having spent years caught up in conflict, with little response from the international community or the government,” Mr Barahona said. “They do not understand why people are now coming in such large numbers.
“While the transmission rate appeared to be slowing down in some areas due to communities responding quickly to prevent the spread, these new cases in urban areas mean we’re not out of the woods yet. In big cities, people come into contact with far more people, especially in a major trading place.
“It’s also of real concern that three cases of the virus were found in a place where armed groups are highly active. These are hostile groups who don’t negotiate, and our ability to reach people in need is extremely challenging. We cannot predict the scale of the consequences if the virus spreads further into rebel-held areas, or if these armed groups start to attack areas that have been hardest hit by Ebola.”
Oxfam is also concerned that fear is making some members of the community take huge health risks by avoiding taking sick family members to Ebola treatment centres, because they see them as ‘prisons’ or ‘places of death’. A significant number of people who’ve been in touch with someone contagious have fled their homes and in some cases people are resisting handing over bodies of deceased loved ones, increasing the threat of the virus spreading.
In Mangina, the epicentre of the outbreak where over 80 per cent of fatalities have occurred, Oxfam found people in shock and angry that family members have died so quickly and that their bodies are being taken away from them. Whilst the majority of people were aware of the seriousness of the virus and have been making great efforts to break the chain of contamination, those who didn’t know about Ebola were scared and had heard many rumours.
“People are facing the virus for the first time, so they are understandably shocked and scared. If you add in the appearance of health workers in space-age hazard suits and the fact they’ve been living with the threat of violence for decades, you can imagine how terrifying the situation is,” Mr Barahona said.
Oxfam is helping more than 138,000 people, by providing clean, safe water and working with local community leaders and volunteers to increase understanding of how to prevent Ebola, to dispel any myths and fears people have.
“From working on previous Ebola outbreaks, it is clear that talking with communities and finding safe solutions with them is critical to containing the virus. When people are informed, and time is taken to listen to their concerns and questions, their behaviour changes rapidly. We have to work with people to change their understanding and behaviour if we hope to keep Ebola under control.
“These people have lived for years with conflict, and now they are seeing loved ones taken away and not buried as customs demand. Much more needs to be done to ensure that the whole response listens to the concerns of the communities.”
For interviews with Oxfam spokespeople in DR Congo or Australia, please contact Dylan Quinnell on 0450 668 350 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to editors:
According to the World Health Organisation, 90 people have now died from Ebola and there are 131 cases (confirmed and probable) http://www.who.int/ebola/situation-reports/drc-2018/en/
Photos and testimonies available here (photo credit: John Wessels/Oxfam): https://wordsandpictures.oxfam.org.uk/pages/search.php?search=%21collection36083&k=cb9087a607
Amongst the daily incidents of low-level violence, Oxfam staff heard of instances where fear had resulted in aid workers being threatened by angry people brandishing machetes and wooden sticks, rocks being thrown at cars, and health workers being blamed for ‘killing’ family members. Part of a health-screening checkpoint in one village was burnt down and Oxfam staff saw residents of another village create a roadblock to prevent staff from getting through.
Apollinaire, a 38-year-old nurse from Mangina, was attacked by grieving families:
“I have been working as a nurse for over ten years. I already knew of the disease before it arrived here, I knew it was very contagious. As soon as we saw the signs of the disease and the laboratory results, we reported the cases. I have reported ten cases since the beginning of the outbreak.
“Some people in the community got angry because I was referring sick people to the treatment centre. They thought it was my fault their family members were dying and that people were being killed at the hospital. They chased me with pieces of wood and threatened me.”
After this incident, when the community was well informed, they apologized and regretted what happened.