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Since the Ebola epidemic began in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) in August 2018, 874 people have died, and 250 more cases have been recorded since the beginning of April, reports Esdras Tongo and Rebecca Ratcliffe in the Guardian. Unfortunately, this situation is being made much worse by an increase in attacks on local treatment centres; especially centres that have a high percentage of foreign health workers. The World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) reported the death of Dr Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, a Cameroonian epidemiologist, during an attack on April 19th. He was killed when an armed group stormed a hospital in the city of Butembo, D.R.C.. Butembo and other cities in the North Kivu province in D.R.C. are at the heart of this Ebola epidemic and an escalation of targeted violence. Sadly, with the epidemic not showing any signs of slowing down, tensions between the local population and foreign aid agencies are already at breaking point.
In response to the killing of Dr Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, the head of W.H.O. Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus called it “a tragic reminder of the risks health workers take every day, to protect the lives of others.” Yap Boum, the regional representative of Epicenter Africa (the research arm of MSF), takes a more critical response saying that “the vaccine is not the [magic] bullet” because “if there is still distrust in the community [the outbreak] will continue.”
The response to the epidemic so far has been to fund research into more vaccines and increase security measures around health centres reports the Guardian. Although vaccination is key in curbing the disease, to reiterate Boum, if there is a lack of investment in local community infrastructures there will always be mistrust of foreign intervention, so vaccines will only get so far. Locals often think that foreigner health workers are the reason for the Ebola epidemic or, that Ebola is one big “money-making scheme” for aid agencies and big pharma. This is a justified reaction. The preferential treatment of health workers over locals and a suspension of voting rights in Ebola-affected areas has meant an increased politicisation of the epidemic. Further highlighting the disparity between locals and foreign healthcare professionals.
According to W.H.O., Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, one in South Sudan and the other in the D.R.C.. Then the largest outbreak occurred from 2014 to 2016 across West Africa, gaining global coverage after it began to spread off the African continent. The epidemic that began on 1st August 2018 is the most recent one to come out of the DRC; unfortunately, the death of Dr Valery is only the most recent of a string of violent clashes between locals and foreign agencies. Attacks go as far back as October 2018 but in February of this year, two health centres in Butembo and, a neighbouring town, Katwa were burnt down by local people that were angry with failing foreign intervention.
What the response to this most recent epidemic has revealed, is the failings of global agencies in tackling localised epidemics. Community leaders in North Kivu province and previous healthcare professionals, who tackled the 2014-16 epidemic, have become critical of international responses. Arguing that, there needs to be a major investment of time and money in local level responses. Therefore, increasing security for doctors and health centres will only exacerbate tensions, because it simply emphasises the lack of consideration regarding the needs of Ebola victims in the D.R.C.. As the death toll and internal tensions continue to rise, better communication from both sides is crucial if there is any hope of solving this stand-off.