On Wednesday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a “health emergency of international concern”, a formal designation that underscores just how serious the situation has become. It is hoped that this declaration will mobilise desperately needed funding — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars — to implement a new plan to control the epidemic.
“It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts. We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system,” said WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
But solving this crisis requires more than just money.
When the outbreak was officially announced on August 1 2018, most experts thought it would be contained relatively easily. For one thing, the DRC has had plenty of experience in dealing with Ebola outbreaks — this is the 10th such outbreak in the country. For another, for the first time responders had a weapon with which to fight the virus: a new vaccine that had proved effective in trials.
But 2 522 cases of the disease and an estimated 1 698 deaths later, it is clear that international efforts to prevent the spread of Ebola have failed. Last month, several cases of the virus were recorded in neighbouring Uganda; this week, an infected priest made it all the way to the regional capital Goma, a major transport hub, where he died.
Several factors have hampered the medical response. One is the location of the outbreak, in the northeast of the country, which is both extremely poor and in the midst of conflict. It has been difficult, if not impossible, for medical teams to access all the affected areas.
Another factor is a widespread mistrust of local authorities and the international community, which is hardly an irrational sentiment. After all, the Congolese government is one of the most corrupt and least effective in the world; and, in the DRC at least, the international community has a long track record of failing to protect citizens (take, for example, the peacekeepers — including South African soldiers — who have been repeatedly implicated in sexual assaults).
Increased funding will undoubtedly help the international community to scale up its Ebola response. But don’t expect the outbreak to be contained until, somehow, local communities are given good reason to trust the responders.