The Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ebola outbreak, which was declared in August 2018, is a “global wake-up call” to the level of impact conflict can have on the spread of disease, the World Health Organization director-general told the Guardian, ahead of a call for Ebola response funding.
According to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, international donors only began providing funding after the outbreak had escalated, with headlines evoking “fear and panic” in the global community. However, he believes international responses to such outbreaks should prioritize preparedness and prevention rather than reactionary measures.
“There are some people who say we need to declare the outbreak as an [emergency] to mobilize resources. That’s really wrong. Resources should be available to prevent needing to declare a PHEIC,” he said, referring to the ‘public health emergency of international concern’ status given to diseases or other health concerns deemed high-risk global threats.
“Preparedness is the solution, not firefighting,” he added.
Since the outbreak in the Congo, there have been 1,536 confirmed deaths, and WHO estimates suggest that just over 2,400 people have been infected. The WHO has been recently criticized for repeatedly refusing to declare the Ebola outbreak an international public health emergency, even though three confirmed cases moved into Uganda last month. Critics have argued that categorizing the epidemic as a global health emergency could push other governments to provide much-needed funding and aid to the Congo.
However, Dr. Tedros said that declaring an emergency could actually hinder efforts to treat and contain the outbreak. Declaring an official emergency could close the Congo’s borders, increasing financial troubles for the country, which largely depends on trade with its neighbors. It would also further marginalize a country that is already plagued with political strife, struggles with internal conflict, and has been largely ignored by the international community.
“The political problems [in DRC] have broken the whole system – social, economic and so on. And to be honest when I talk to the community it is embarrassing for me, because they say, ‘You are only interested in Ebola because you do not want it in your own countries and you are trying to protect yourselves while mothers and children are dying here,’” he told the Guardian.
But Dr. Tedros said disease is not to blame for the country’s problems.
“The root cause of the problem is lack of peace, the lack of a political solution. The incidence of Ebola, malaria, and cholera is the symptom,” he said.
Political instability in the Congo has endangered Ebola response efforts. Some health workers were attacked after voting in national elections were canceled in areas affected by Ebola last year. Further interference in the country’s economics or politics could anger the general population even more, Dr. Tedros said.
He also said he believes the outbreak could be controlled in the near future, but he fears that it is inevitable that the disease will return due to unchanging political and security conditions.
“I know we can finish this Ebola outbreak. But at the same time it can come back because all the [political and security] conditions remain the same,” he told the Guardian.
In calling for greater international response, Dr. Tedros extended a reminder that, although it may currently only affect the Congo and its surrounding areas, the Ebola epidemic is still an issue that deserves global attention.
“We think that we are very far from the problem but in a globalized world even if it is only happening in one country it can be exported — so there is a risk, even as we speak, of spread," he said. "We should support the Congolese but also help ourselves."