The calm for Congo's Ebola storm

Despite the best medical response to Congo’s Ebola outbreak, the virus keeps spreading because of fear, false rumors, and violence. The crisis now requires a buildup of trust that can calm and comfort local communities.

Doctors and health workers march in the Congo town of Butembo April 24 after attackers killed an epidemiologist.

The world has never faced a mental challenge quite like this.

Despite a well-organized global effort to stop an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Congo, including the use of a new vaccine, the numbers have only worsened. Since October, when the outbreak began, more than 1,000 have died. The toll is the second largest in history for Ebola. And the fatality rate is higher than in previous outbreaks. In the past month, the virus has spread only faster and farther in the northeast provinces of Africa’s second-largest country.

If all that sounds fearful and suggests a wider epidemic, you may understand why officials have pinpointed a key reason for the lack of progress against the disease: fear itself.

As response teams have worked diligently to curb the outbreak, local armed groups and politicians have whipped up fears among the Congolese and exploited false rumors. This has led to more than 100 acts of violence against health workers. After each attack, officials note, the outbreak increases.

“The tragedy is that we have the technical means to stop Ebola, but until all parties halt attacks on the response, it will be very difficult to end this outbreak,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.

In a study of Congo’s crisis published in March, scholars discovered that fewer people sought medical care as fear of the disease rose. The fear has stayed one step ahead of the facts. It has also led people to abandon any concern for others.

Some global experts have called for the European Union to send a “white-helmeted security battalion” to the area. They note President Barack Obama sent 3,000 American troops to Liberia during the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Yet militarizing the Ebola-hit area with foreign forces may not be the answer. In fact it may only add to a deeper cause of the outbreak: a general mistrust of outsiders bred by a vacuum of governance in eastern Congo after decades of conflict.

Restoring trust is now essential to quell the fear. Biodefense first requires a buy-in by local communities.

That means greater transparency and consistency in delivering humanitarian aid as well as better communication about goals and methods. Medicine alone is not sufficient.

What’s needed immediately is a cease-fire in the area, perhaps brokered by international leaders and Congolese officials. This would create a comfort and a calm that might allow health workers to operate safely. Only by loosening the grip of fear can Congo conquer the grip of Ebola.

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