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Health

Ebola responders face deadly attacks. We must step up security in DRC


Entering the city of Goma as night fell, I saw the red lava glowing atop nearby Mount Nyiragongo – an ominous reminder of the insecurity hovering over the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s volatile east.

But a manmade – not natural – terror is keeping health workers in DRC awake tonight.

And it keeps me awake too.

Brave colleagues, already fighting the Ebola outbreak, face an even graver threat: being targeted by men armed with machetes, guns and evil intent.

In the early hours of 28 November, attackers stormed two facilities crucial to the fight against the outbreak in the villages of Biakato Mines and Mangina.

Four Ebola responders were killed, seven reportedly injured and even more traumatised by the brazen night-time raids. These were people from the local communities, striving to trace Ebola cases, treat the sick and return them healthy to their loved ones.

Among those wounded was Kaswerma, who I met after the attack in hospital in Goma, a city of relative calm where many Ebola responders were evacuated to, including many of my World Health Organization colleagues.

Kaswerma, a communications officer working to raise awareness on how people can protect themselves from Ebola, recalled the clatter of gunshots and blood-curdling yells of men enveloping the Biakato camp where she worked.

She remembers a machete blow to her head, a dash for safety and huddling in a room for several hours, out of sight of attackers roaming the corridors, going door to door to look for new victims.

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Worst of all was the murder of her friend, Belinda, another dedicated responder, who was chased down and killed in the grounds of the jungle-ringed camp.

This was no random act. It was a deliberate attack on those working to protect the lives and health of others.

So far in 2019, WHO has documented about 390 attacks on health facilities in DRC, which have killed 11 and injured 83 healthcare workers and patients, including those targeted in Biakato and Mangina.

The culprits are numerous. They often come from the same communities as their victims. Health workers dedicated to helping their neighbours should not be confronted by such violence and fear.

Instead, they should feel the satisfaction of saving someone from Ebola and the joy of reuniting their patients with their families.

We need to do more to keep them safe, because if they cannot access the hotbeds of the outbreak, more people will become infected and die. We cannot allow that to happen.

To do this requires action on three fronts: stepped-up security, effective dialogue at community level, and a clear demonstration of political will to protect humanitarian operations.

First, to secure health operations in eastern DRC, national security forces and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in DRC need to more proactively protect Ebola responders, in line with their mandate. Security forces must provide an environment in which frontline health workers are able to respond to the outbreak amid the ever-changing conditions on the ground.

Since the start of the outbreak in August 2018, more than 3,300 people have contracted Ebola, 2,100 of whom have died.

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We have seen before how Ebola crosses borders and endangers new populations far from the outbreak’s origins.

In recent weeks, there had been an encouraging decline in the number of people newly infected. Ebola was on the retreat.

But the latest attacks echo our persistent warning that these gains will be lost if those responsible for security don’t provide effective protection for Ebola responders and communities.

Second, it is essential that we intensify dialogue and collaboration with all major players to improve security for health operations. This means working even more closely with civil society organisations supporting the local population, political, religious and traditional leaders, and armed groups open to dialogue.

My belief is that effective dialogue can lead to what we need most – increased understanding and support for the response by communities, which, in turn, could lessen the need for a security presence.

Third, political will is the glue that binds all security-focused actions together.

When all levels of government and organisations combine to address a problem, we achieve great things.

I witnessed such dedication on my recent visit to Goma, where I met the head of the DRC Ministry of Health’s Ebola response.

I was heartened by his commitment to working closely with the UN and other partners to bring the outbreak under control. The WHO, for its part, is determined to stand with the government – not only until we end this outbreak but beyond, to tackle the other health needs in DRC.

What I was most overwhelmed by, though, was the spirit of WHO staff.

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I shared the evening with several hundred Ebola responders, including those who had been evacuated to Goma .

Many told tales of the horror they endured, hiding behind wardrobes and in riverbeds until trouble passed, not knowing how long it would last.

Some opened up about the grief they felt at losing close friends and colleagues.

But there also came a message of hope, strength and determination to continue working to contain Ebola in memory of those who died protecting the health of others.

Despite the challenges, these heroes want to return to the field. Some, however, understandably have doubts about their safety.

To overcome this, they need tangible action to secure where they work.

While we can’t control the volcanoes of DRC, there is much more we can, and must, do to protect the brave Ebola responders and people of the country’s east.



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