In the villages of north east Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the scars of conflict and extreme poverty are all too visible. In this context, the threat of Ebola, which has claimed over 1,600 lives in the past year, is a crisis within a crisis.
Recently the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the city of Goma, with the World Health Organization (WHO) last week declaring the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern”.
This emergency provision has only been enacted four times previously, but considerations such as the size of the city of Goma and its location on the border with Rwanda means the UN have deemed the confirmed case to be a “potential game changer”.
I am currently visiting Trócaire’s local partners in east DRC where we are working to prevent the spread of the disease.
Conditions in the country mean there are many challenges. Ebola is mostly effecting the north east of DRC where there is ongoing conflict with attacks and counter attacks between vying factions. The violence has led to large scale displacement with reports of indiscriminate killings, sexual violence and villages being burnt out. Huge sections of the population are inaccessible because it is unsafe so they are completely cut off and isolated. There are very few tarred roads so communities are very inaccessible and difficult to reach by car.
We are working in the area, doing our best to learn the lessons from Sierra Leone and the crisis in West Africa a few years ago.
Trócaire is targeting 160,000 people in our programme. Fighting Ebola means spreading the message – teaching people the signs and symptoms and how to prevent the disease spreading further.
We are trying to build trust in communities as that is one of the main barriers for aid agencies. There is a vaccine available but many communities fear the vaccine is poison.
Working with local partners
We are working through local community organisations and church organisations who are more trusted in rural areas, so this allows us to reach the most isolated and vulnerable communities here who are often forgotten or unreachable.
For example, I have just visited an indigenous Pygmy settlement. The pygmy have traditionally been marginalised in DRC. Trócaire is working with them to make sure they have the information they need to help prevent the spread of the disease among their community.
We also provide clean water and water taps and in cases where people have been effected we provide psychosocial support.
Everywhere I have gone, people have expressed their thanks for the support from the Irish public and the Government through Irish Aid, in helping to contain the current Ebola crisis.
Noreen Gumbo is visiting DRC as Head of Trócaire’s Humanitarian Programme.