Congo, tired of Ebola, must also fight coronavirus

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BENI, Congo – The Congo is struggling with an Ebola epidemic that has killed thousands of people for over 18 months and is now facing a new plague: the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ebola virus left people in the east of the country tired and frightened and, as they prepared to declare the end of the epidemic, a new case emerged. From now on, they will now have to manage both threats at the same time.

The new virus has overwhelmed some of the world’s best hospital systems in Europe and has devastated communities in New York. In the Congo, it could spread without control in a country that has suffered decades of conflict, where corruption has left the population largely impoverished despite the mineral wealth, and where distrust of authority is so great anchored that health workers were killed during the Ebola outbreak. It is also unclear how the next international support will be at a time when the whole world is fighting the coronavirus.

“It all sounds like a big storm,” said Martine Milonde, a Congolese community mobilizer who works with the World Vision aid group in Beni, which was the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic. “Really, it is a crisis in a crisis in a crisis. The community suffers from insecurity, has suffered from Ebola and can now be confronted with COVID-19. “

In early March, an Ebola patient who many hoped to be the last was released, and the epidemic was due to be officially declared on Sunday. But the World Health Organization announced a new case in Beni on Friday.

The epidemic has claimed the lives of more than 2,260 people since August 2018 – the second largest in the world, after the 2014-2016 epidemic in West Africa.

However, there is hope: many of the tools used to fight Ebola – handwashing and the main social distancing factor among them – are also essential to fighting coronavirus.

To Beni, who reported two cases of new coronavirus, “communities here continue to hope to overcome this pandemic as they worked to beat Ebola,” said Milonde. “They are counting on the caution, vigilance and hygienic practices they have implemented to save their families.”

Community advocates in Beni – who are walking around with megaphones talking about Ebola – have started to include warnings about the coronavirus.

Messages explaining COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and where to go if sick are broadcast on radio stations, by text messages, and by religious leaders. Schools, churches and mosques are already equipped with hand washing kits.

Beni mayor Nyonyi Bwanakawa said many of the measures were familiar – but the recommendations to stay at home are more stringent than those required for Ebola, and authorities are ready to take “dramatic measures” if people resist .

Unlike Ebola, which kills about half of the people it infects, the new coronavirus mainly causes mild or moderate symptoms in about 80% of people. Spreading Ebola usually requires an exchange of bodily fluids, and people have often been infected when caring for loved ones or crying during traditional funerals involving close contact with the body. The new coronavirus, on the other hand, is much more contagious and is spread mainly by people who cough or sneeze, including those who have only mild flu-like symptoms.

This means that the task of controlling the spread of the virus in the Congo will be enormous: the government has only limited control in parts of the vast country, there are also dense population centers with poor sanitation and infrastructure. , and the east of the country, rich in minerals, is beset by the violence of various armed groups.

Dr. Michel Yao, head of the emergency response program at the WHO Africa office, said that robust testing and contact tracing will be essential. But involving the community fully in the fight against the disease could be even more important.

It means not only speaking in communities, “but giving them responsibilities and roles to play.”

Initially, efforts to combat Ebola encountered resistance, one of the main contributors to its spread. Amid insecurity in the east of the country, superstitions emerged and some clinics to treat Ebola patients were attacked and health workers killed.

The capital, Kinshasa, a crowded city of 14 million on the western border of the country, remains another major concern, said Yao, who is based at the WHO headquarters in the neighboring Republic of Congo.

“If he reached this place, it would be a big disaster,” he said.

“Africa is only partially ready,” said Yao. “If we stick to sporadic cases, it can be managed.”

But many more developed countries have seen cases increase, and a large epidemic in the Congo could easily overwhelm its hospital system. State-of-the-art equipment to treat serious respiratory illnesses that coronavirus can cause is lacking: Health Ministry says there are about 65 ventilators – all in Kinshasa – and 20 more on order for one more country of 80 million inhabitants.

There have been 215 confirmed cases of new coronavirus in the Congo, with 20 deaths, the ministry said on Friday.

And health workers will also need to find a way to continue treating people infected with the many other diseases that plague the population regularly. In the past year, for example, an epidemic of measles has killed more than 6,000 people in the Congo.

In addition, as donor countries themselves face outbreaks, aid from abroad may be less immediate. The key, Yao said, is to train more people locally to care for the sick.

The challenge will rally again after several months of trying to contain Ebola.

“The job was not yet finished, and we are facing another emergency,” said Yao.

Katungo Methya, 53, a volunteer for the Red Cross in Beni, expressed a weariness felt by many.

“It is so overwhelming to have this second disease. We have lost so many people because of Ebola, many dead, now corona, “she said. “Everyone is really scared. “

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Petesch reported in Dakar, Senegal. The medical writer AP Maria Cheng in London contributed from London.

Carley Petesch and Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro, The Associated Press

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