Why The Ebola Outbreak In The Democratic Republic Of Congo Keeps Getting Worse

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 9:27 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo keeps getting worse. One of the main reasons - armed groups continue to attack Ebola responders. Today, the United Nations secretary-general created a new position, an emergency Ebola response coordinator, whose sole job is to keep health workers safe. It's a recognition that the only way to stop this outbreak is to stop violence against Ebola workers. NPR's Nurith Aizenman is here to talk about why. Nurith, we're 10 months into this outbreak. Where do things stand at this point?

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Well, it's very worrying. We've got nearly 1,900 people infected, 1,200 people dead, and over the last several weeks, the rate of new infections has jumped dramatically. We're seeing more than 100 new cases every week. And that's because there is a lot of violence, gunmen storming Ebola treatment centers assassinating health workers. And there's this suggestion that a lot of the violence is actually coordinated, that Ebola is being used as a political weapon. And that's what's led to this really quite remarkable U.N. decision.

CORNISH: You said remarkable. What's the significance of this decision?

AIZENMAN: Well, until now, the outbreak response on the international side has really been led by health officials, the World Health Organization. But the U.N. does have a large peacekeeping force in Congo. And the deputy head of that, his name is David Gressly, that is who they've appointed to this new position that they've created. In other words, it's a recognition that they have to treat this as much as a political problem as a health problem.

This is a place where you have a lot of political players who've been jockeying for position against each other and against factions of the national government. And it seems like a lot of them have connections to these small armed groups all through the area that are said to be behind a lot of these attacks on Ebola responders. Basically, it's a way to destabilize the area as a way to gain power against your rivals.

CORNISH: It seems like it would be in everyone's interest to get rid of Ebola, right? Why are they doing this?

AIZENMAN: Well, because a lot of the players are perceiving that Ebola has actually been used as a political tool against them. So let me give you an example of how my sources say this has played out. When Ebola first hit, it looked like the ruling national government was using it as an opportunity to give key jobs in the Ebola response to its supporters. And then in December, the government suspended voting in presidential elections in the two cities most affected by Ebola. They used the outbreak as justification.

But these are opposition strongholds. So, again, it reinforced this view that Ebola is being exploited for political gain. It's being used by certain political players to make money. And so what we're seeing is a lot of these messages being circulated that Ebola is a hoax or Ebola is a plot. And people are attributing these messages to local political leaders who presumably feel that their power is being threatened by rivals who are aligned with the fight against Ebola.

CORNISH: So the new U.N. coordinator, what can they do?

AIZENMAN: This appointment is a recognition that the U.N. realizes they need to treat this as much as a political problem as a health problem. And my sources in Congo say that they might need to get pretty radical because you can't just fight this with guns because if you do that, you're just going to play into this narrative that the national government is using Ebola as a way to gain power. You need to spread the message that this is not a political issue, that this is something that, you know, affects everyone.

And so some of the ideas that have been talked about, for example, is just really broaden who gets vaccinated. Normally, you vaccinate people who've had direct contact with someone who has Ebola, which makes sense medically, right? But that just makes people wonder, are the people who are getting vaccinated people who have connections, you know? And why isn't everyone getting vaccinated?

So medically, it might not make sense to do as much vaccinating, but from a public perception point of view, it does. And then, you know, similarly, there's discussion that they just need to do even more to really ensure that everybody in the community is given the same resources, the same jobs, that no one group is benefiting economically from this Ebola outbreak; so really addressing these underlying perceptions and realities, frankly, as a way to remove Ebola as a political weapon make it no longer a reasonable argument that this, in fact, is just being used by one side to gain power.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Thank you.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.