2,000 Ebola Cases in Violence-Plagued DR Congo — Threat to Tanzania

Brian Lüdtke

Brian Lüdtke

Owner and Founder, Dodoma.com

7 June 2019

Tanzania and other countries bordering DR Congo are facing a perfect storm, as the cases of Ebola in the Central African giant top the milestone of 2,000 infected people.   Subsequent the advent of a largely-effective Ebola vaccine, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

Since the end of Liberia’s outbreak in 2015, the World Health Organization has greatly improved its organization.  Indicators like efficiency, planning, and speed have all seen marked improvements. 

Woman mourning at grave, Ebola outbreak in DR Congo in 2019
Woman mourning at a grave during the 2019 Ebola outbreak in DR Congo
However, history continues to demonstrate that Ebola never pops up in places that have ideal working conditions.  On the contrary, Ebola presents in geographic settings with a nightmare logistical context.
Since late 2017, intercommunal and militia violence, some of which involving the conflict between the Lendu and the Hema, has returned to Ituri Province.  From 1999 to 2003, ethnic conflict in the area resulted in approximately 55,000 deaths and the displacement of millions.  The current fighting also involves various criminal and political forces; certainly, it reflects the perpetual dysfunction and incompetence of the Kinshasa-based government.
Congolese national armed forces have committed numerous atrocities in eastern DR Congo
A murderous, Islamist militia, with possible links to Daesh (ISIS), has also emerged.  The jihadists targets civilians and healthcare workers in northeast Congo.  Their atrocities include a recent attack on U.N. forces, which resulted in 14 killed blue helmets, including Tanzanians.  Potentially, the chanting extremists view Ebola as an ally in their quest to commit ever-greater crimes against humanity.
Ebola in DR Congo, Nurse with gloves and gown, 2019
A Congolese registered nurse with gloves and gown in front of an Ebola treatment facility
For decades, DR Congo’s national army has been wont to rape and pillage its own populace.   The recent election of President Félix Tshisekedi was decried by most observers as unfree and unfair, with generalized speculation that this underdog had made a secret power-sharing pact with outgoing president Joseph Kabila, in exchange for robbing victory from Martin Fayulu.  The Catholic Church, which had 40,000 election observers, declared Fayulu as the real recipient of the most votes
Tanzania contributes 2,600 blue helmets to DR Congo and five other theatres of conflict.    The UN mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO, has a total of 18,316 uniformed elements.   Previously known as “MONUC,” the U.N. military force has been present in the country since 2000: an entire generation.
Bizarrely, this Ebola outbreak in the jungles of Central Africa has a connection to bureaucratic sluggishness in Central Europe. The Merck corporation, which produces the major Ebola vaccine, shut down its facility in the U.S., intending to open a new plant in Germany.  However, authorities in the E.U. have not granted the necessary authorizations, so nothing at all is in the production pipeline at this time; no further vaccines are being made or shipped to the crisis area.
An Ebola health clinic in eastern Congo-Kinshasa, 2019
The Ebola virus, spread by direct contact with bodily fluids, caused a major epidemic in Liberia and surrounding countries in 2014 – 2015.  Several hundred people were getting infected every week.  375 healthcare workers contracted the virus.
In that outbreak, the affected countries lost billions of dollars from their economies.   Even in African countries that had zero cases of Ebola, thousands of visitors cancelled reservations and plans. 
Today, public attention in Europe and the U.S. is largely distracted by other issues and not following events in DR Congo.  This may be due to a combination of Ebola news fatigue and the current outbreak’s limited geographic impact.  However, if DR Congo’s outbreak continues its current trajectory, the panic level in Western countries may approach that seen during the 2014/15 epidemic in West Africa.
Respiratory Technician assisting an Ebola patient at the clinic; DR Congo, 2019
Respiratory Technician assisting an Ebola patient at the clinic; DR Congo, 2019
An Ebola treatment facility in North Kivu, DR Congo
An Ebola treatment facility in North Kivu, DR Congo
Ebola Cleaning and Decontamination at a treatment facility in DR Congo, 2019
With Congolese territory directly across Lake Tanganyika from Tanzania, or accessible by land through Burundi or Rwanda, the United Republic finds itself near the front lines of this epidemiological disaster.  When the first Ebola patient arrives at a European or American airport, or if Tanzania actually gets its own cases, the country’s tourism industry could implode.  Although economic recovery would of course eventually ensue, subsequent the inevitably end of the epidemic, nevertheless the loss would be painful.
Beyond a narrow focus on the current outbreak, what does the chaos say about DR Congo, which increasingly appears to have state failure as a chronic condition?  How can discipline be enhanced among its soldiers?  How can more of its officers and politicians acquire patriotism and integrity?  How can the population obtain education and access economic opportunity and services?

* Note: the author’s sources are designated with links, which have a blue font color.

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