EBOLA IN THE CONGO
By Femi Olugbile
The phone began to vibrate just as you commenced your morning exercise. The caller’s name leapt up in bold letters on the screen.
‘I am Dr Adadevoh, Consultant Physician at First Consultant.’
Perhaps it was the time of day, or the interruption of your exercise that made you short. You reasoned it was something to do with the Ministry, and she was not aware you had left the system two months ago. ‘Could you please give me the phone number of Professor Omilabu’s lab at LUTH? I think I may have a case of Ebola on my hands…’
A bolt of electricity shot across the atmosphere.
No, she did not get the Professor’s number. Instead, she got a link to Disease Control, and Disease Control got a hotwire link back to her. A jangling of alarm bells rose quickly to a din. Irrespective of what the Hollywood movie ’93 Days’ or any other accounts would say later, that was the real beginning of the Lagos Response to Ebola, a response that would ultimately put Lagos, and Nigeria, in World News, for a good purpose for a change.
Having played her part in setting off the trip-wire, Ameyo Adadevoh would bravely resist the importunities of the headstrong Liberian Patrick Sawyer who had brought his fever-ridden body into Lagos, Nigeria despite warnings not to travel. Even after landing in hospital, and obviously used to throwing his weight around, he demanded to leave and mobilized his rich and powerful connections to evade quarantine. Dr Adadevoh stood firm as the Liberian Ambassador to Nigeria threatened fire and brimstone, demanding that his countryman be ‘freed’ from hospital. It was not a glorious day for Liberia, but it was a glorious day for Adadevoh and Nigerian Medicine. Potentially thousands of Nigerians were saved from infection, and a grisly death.
Still, it was not entirely without a price. Twenty people were infected with Ebola. Eight of them died, including Ameyo Adadevoh.
There are five recognized strains of the dangerous virus, which is alleged to have been passed to human beings from infected animals in the forests of East and Central Africa, and spread by human-to-human contact. The first recorded mass infections occurred in Sudan in 1976. The largest recorded attack of Ebola was the one that ravaged West Africa, including Nigeria, from December 2013. Though the Nigerian incursion was effectively seen off within a few months in 2014, the epidemic did not end until 2016. At the final count, 28,646 people were infected. For the general public who got infected and did not make it to hospital, about 70% died. For those who were able to receive treatment in hospital, whether in Liberia or Sierra Leone or elsewhere, the survival rate was higher.
After a short reprieve, when the world was beginning to think it had heard the last of the deadly scourge, Ebola is in the news again, in the Congo. This time it is a very pathetic story of failure in governance. In May 2018, a few cases of Ebola infection were reported in the North West of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was the 9th reported outbreak of Ebola in the country. The world appeared ready to fight the virus with Science. For the first time, a vaccine – rVSV-ZEBOW was deployed by the WHO to stem the outbreak. It seemed to work, and the outbreak was declared over in July 2018.
Unfortunately, one month later, a fresh outbreak was reported in Kivu Province, in the much-troubled East of the country. To say that there is war in some parts of the Congo is to make a massive understatement. Apart from the undisciplined Congolese Army (the FDLR) which is a menace in its own right, there are over seventy armed militias fighting for various causes. There are over a million internally displaced people, living in precarious circumstances, trying to escape the fighting and the rapacity of the various armed groups. The largest United Nations ‘Peace-Keeping’ Force in the world – 21,000 soldiers, has been stationed in the Congo for several years. Their mission is a misnomer. There is no peace to keep in the Congo. At the heart of the conflict is a failure of society itself that has seen a line of grasping incompetent thieves and robbers holding the reins of power in the capital Kinshasa, and not bothering much with the rest of the country.
There is a new President now – Felix Tshisekedi – who is just trying to find his feet. Observers can be forgiven if they are cynical about the prospect for positive change.
Underpinning all the violence is MONEY. Western (and increasing lately, Chinese) companies mine precious minerals – Cassiterite, Coltan – used in cellphones, and Gold in the troubled areas and pay large sums of money ‘under the table’ to militias and ‘government’ forces. The money substantially finances the endless war.
To date, 2518 Congolese have been infected by Ebola in the latest epidemic. 1509 of them have died. In May this year, WHO reported that there have been 42 attacks on health facilities, and 85 health workers have been wounded or killed. Some Aid organizations have withdrawn their staff from the field.
There is a massive war of disinformation, going back to the period before the recent elections. Many local people have been fed lies by opposition groups and made to believe the Ebola outbreak was a hoax fostered by government. There was even a widespread public resistance to vaccination.
WHO, at its latest expert meeting in Geneva, in June, decided that Congo’s Ebola does not meet the criteria for declaring an international crisis. In effect, Congo is on its own.
More than ever before, the Congo needs effective, decisive, and empathic Leadership, which, sadly, it has never had. It is the only thing that can make this sad story go away. The rest of Africa can only wring their hands in anguish.