What DRC did to beat Ebola can teach us about fighting corona

Saturday March 14 2020

A man receives a vaccine against Ebola from a nurse outside the Afia Himbi Health Center on July 15, 2019 in Goma, DR Congo. PHOTO | AFP


As most people continue to run scare over what the World Health Organisation has now declared to be a coronavirus pandemic, there was “good” news about an even more deadly virus from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This week the patient being treated for Ebola in DRC was discharged, and there have been no new cases for over two weeks.

If over the next four weeks there are no reported new infections, the DRC Ebola epidemic will be declared to be over.

More than 2,200 people have died since the epidemic hit the country in August 2018. With the epicentre being in the strife-torn eastern part of the country, and a notoriously incompetent and corrupt government in Kinshasa (the story of Congo’s life), and regular attacks on treatment centres by all manner of bandits, it looked like DRC was doomed.

Yet, here we are. It took too long, but as the good old African proverb says, no matter how long or dark the night, dawn will break.

Now, the postmortem is on. What did DRC finally do right, and what can be learn in the face of new virus threats like coronavirus.


Of the many theories, two struck me. The first, gives credit to President Felix Tshisekedi for making the right choices in appointing new and good leadership to the Ministry of Health, and picking an inspirational figure to head the Ebola task force, a major departure from his successors.

Secondly, that security in eastern DRC has improved, something we haven’t covered prominently.

In all, the war on Ebola seems to have focused minds in DRC and forced a new approach to management of the state, and that Tshisekedi, who was and is still seen as a puppet of Kabila, nevertheless might have an enlightened streak.

But perhaps the most eye-opening offering came from a long op-ed by Trish Newport, Médecins Sans Frontières’s Emergency Coordinator.

After an attack on an MSF treatment centre, she asked one of their local staff why there was so much anger directed at humanitarian workers. This was her answer:

“My husband was killed in a massacre in Beni. At that time, all I wanted was some organisation to come and protect us from the killings, but no international organisation came. I have had three children die of malaria. No international organisation has ever come to work in this area to make sure we have healthcare or clean water. But now Ebola arrives and all the organisations come, because Ebola gives them money. If you cared about us, you would ask us what our priorities are. My priorities are security and making sure my children don't die from malaria or diarrhoea. My priority is not Ebola—that is your priority.”

Among the many insights, is that even armed protection for humanitarian workers and supplies, was alienating. Newport doesn’t say why, but clearly it is because that was reproducing the structure of state repression that the Congolese had endured for decades.

As DRC beat Ebola, this week it also became the first country in the region to confirm a novel coronavirus case, when a Belgian citizen who’d been in the country for some days tested positive.

It might have to do it all over again.

Charles Onyango-Obbo author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site [email protected]