KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The DRC is already facing an increasing caseload of COVID-19. However, recently people have started reporting a new Ebola outbreak. The DRC’s public health system is unequipped to fight these viruses in tandem. In addition, poverty compounds the already devastating effects of these co-occurring epidemics. Thus, making it that much harder when it comes to fighting two deadly epidemics in the DRC.
Ebola Makes an Unwelcome Return to the DRC
In June 2020, the DRC government announced that the country was facing an outbreak of Ebola. This marks the 11th outbreak since the virus was discovered there in 1976. As of late November, there were 130 cases and 55 deaths in the Équateur province. This announcement comes as the 10th Ebola outbreak was nearing its end despite not being officially declared as over.
The 10th outbreak, which is in the eastern portion of the country and began in 2018, has thus far consisted of 3,406 cases and 2,243 deaths. As it did during the 10th Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) is supporting government-led responses to the 11th outbreak by contributing to contact tracing, sample collection, sample testing and supply provision efforts. The Ebola virus exists in an animal reservoir in the DRC, so additional outbreaks are likely to occur.
Overcoming Obstacles to Treating COVID-19 in the DRC
As of May 31, the DRC reported 3,195 cases and 72 deaths. The country, which has a population of approximately 80 million, has extremely limited capacities for COVID-19 response. As a result, there are a number of factors hindering the country’s response to the virus, such as:
- Only having one lab that can analyze COVID-19 tests (100 tests per day)
- A one week wait time for test results
- A total of 40 ventilators
- An ongoing measles epidemic
- Health issues including diabetes, high blood pressure, malaria, cholera, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis
- Social customs that run counter to social distancing
- A lack of proper sanitation (soap, running water, etc.)
- A lack of supplies; many healthcare workers are not working because they are afraid to do so without personal protective equipment
- Hunger and malnutrition
- Unrest in the eastern portion of the DRC
- An epidemic of misinformation about COVID-19
- A lack of state pensions, which decreases the financial stability of the elderly — the very population most vulnerable to COVID-19
Even the government-imposed lockdown, a measure for containing COVID-19, has decidedly negative consequences: aid groups cannot enter the country and people cannot access their medications due to the suspension of public transport. As a result, fighting two deadly epidemics in the DRC can be an overwhelming task for the DRC government.
Fighting Two Deadly Epidemics in the DRC
Aid groups that were already in the country are working to solve these problems with a community health approach. In a recent article, Anatole Bandu is the DRC representative for the nonprofit HelpAge, which focuses on senior citizens worldwide. He described his nonprofit’s efforts to deliver medicines door-to-door, conduct visits to older people, distribute soap and hand sanitizer and educate the public about COVID-19. Bandu wrote, “We need a stronger health system to be able to cope with disease outbreaks and we need humanitarian aid that targets older people, who are vulnerable.”
The DRC is facing outbreaks of COVID-19 and Ebola concurrently, and poverty is further compounding the epidemics’ synergistic severity. The country needs improved public health infrastructure, funding, supplies, and aid to better fight these viruses.
– Isabelle Breier