The Globe: Ebola Crisis in the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) is battling the immensely contagious disease known as Ebola which ravaged West Africa between 2014-2016. Given the systematic instability in the Congo, the people’s suffering will only become much worse. Further complicating the issue is that the disease is now threatening to spill over to neighboring countries. If this were to happen, it would have dire ramifications in a region of Africa that is already dealing with civil conflicts, corruption and displaced peoples.  

For those unfamiliar with the disease, Ebola is transmitted to humans from an infected animal, “such as a fruit bat or nonhuman primates” and can also spread via direct contact through blood, body fluids or objects (needles). It can take anywhere between 2 to 21 days after exposure to develop symptoms which range from fever, severe headaches and diarrhea to hemorrhaging. Currently, the only “cures” are an experimental vaccine known as rVSV-ZEBOV which is still awaiting licensure by the Food and Drug Administration, and the recombinant adenovirus type-5 Ebola vaccine that is still a work in progress after being tested back in 2015 during the outbreak in Sierra Leone.

In 2014, West Africa experienced the worst Ebola crisis ever reported. Over the course of two years, the virus claimed 11,315 lives out of the 28,637 reported cases in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the United States and Mali. The crisis was born in the Gueckedou prefecture in Guinea which lies at a vital junction between neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. After several repeated break-outs, the crisis ended as a result of mobilization of national resources to identify people with Ebola and then provide them immediate medical attention.

Ebola could not come at a worse time for the DRC. According to the Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index (FSI) which measures the stability of a state by measuring security, political, social and economic factors, the Congo ranks 5th out of 178 countries of being the most fragile. This is as a result of international intervention, poor socioeconomic conditions such as income inequality, factionalized elites, a massive pre-existing refugee crisis, etc. So far, there have been an estimated 2,000 reported cases of Ebola and has killed roughly 1396 people as of June 10, 2019, making it the second worst outbreak in history. Making matters worse is that the Congolese government and foreign medical professionals are not trusted by the public which reportedly believes that the current crisis “is a ruse to try to rig elections in the area” and that the medical groups are indeed the perpetrators behind the current situation.

With the instability in Congo, the threat of Ebola traveling across borders via infected refugees is a significant threat to the region. The outbreak is situated in the DRC’s northeast which borders South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda. These states would be crippled if the virus proliferated across the border. South Sudan in particular would be in dire straits as the country is also amongst one of the most fragile states in the world, coming in at 3rd place on the FSI. The lack of political stability and armed conflict in South Sudan, mixed with the Ebola crisis is a recipe for disaster. Refugees cross the border everyday between the Congo and its neighbors. If just one ebola-infected person enters another country, this could have the potential to start a domino effect with more people developing the virus.

Indeed this might already be happening as the WHO has reported that “a 5-year-old Congolese boy was diagnosed with the virus in Uganda” after seeking medical care in that country. Sadly, the child succumbed to the illness and now his younger brother and grandmother are also being treated for the virus. This event has led the WHO to declare a public health emergency to the state and the region as there is now a credible risk that more people in other states become infected. However, Uganda and Rwanda are in a much better position to handle the illness than their neighbor to the west.

For those of us in the West with more temperate climates, the risk of transmission is low but there is still a clear and present danger. During the 2014 crisis, American citizens who were in the West African region brought the virus back with them. Most of the eleven people infected were able to fully recover, but three others were not as fortunate. Then-candidate Donald Trump had argued that the United States should shut down the border to prevent anyone with the virus from entering the country.

To combat the rising epidemic and prevent it from being a world-wide pandemic, the international community must obviously continue giving support to the countries fighting the Ebola virus. States like the Congo and South Sudan are ill-equipped to handle the outbreak on their own and resources must be provided to remedy this issue. This can be done by deploying medical professionals and advisors to regional hospitals to bolster beleaguered staff, providing provisional support such as food and water that are not contaminated and possibly security personnel to help enforce quarantines to prevent proliferation.

An Ebola crisis anywhere is a nightmare ready to happen; and in the case of Central African countries like the Congo, this nightmare is very real. These states must be built up and supported to ensure the virus is contained to prevent a crisis on par with the 2014 West African incident. Whether it is through expert or material support, members of the international community cannot ignore the crisis or it risks allowing the virus to ravage more of a region devastated by war. Besides giving support, the Congolese government and its partners must work to stop the violence against the medical professionals attempting to save lives. If the situation in the Northeastern Congo does not improve, then the possibility of the disease spreading across the country and across the border is only inevitable.