Healing the social wounds behind Ebola

The new “emergency” over the spread of Ebola in Africa is really a desire to address the fears and distrust that drive this second-worst outbreak of the virus.

Residents wait in line to receive the Ebola vaccine in Beni, Congo DRC.

Nearly a year after the second-worst outbreak of the Ebola virus began, the World Health Organization has declared an “international health emergency,” its highest level of alert. The virus keeps advancing in Congo despite new types of medical prevention. Yet the WHO decision also suggests the crucial need for a nonmedical solution: building trust among local people to lessen their fears. 

“The inability to build community trust has proven a major barrier to stopping the spread of this disease,” says the International Rescue Committee’s vice president for emergencies, Bob Kitchen.

False rumors, a resentment toward outsiders, and conflict by armed militias have led to hundreds of health workers being attacked. According to a Harvard University survey, 1 in 4 people believe the virus was fabricated for financial or political gain. In the meantime, nearly 1,700 people have died since the outbreak began last August.

WHO says dealing with the situation is one of the most challenging humanitarian emergencies it has ever faced. “To build trust we must demonstrate we are not parachuting in to deal with Ebola and leaving once it’s finished,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO.

In May, the United Nations decided to try a more humane and holistic approach. “Medical expertise is not sufficient to end epidemics,” concluded Tamba Emmanuel Danmbi-saa, humanitarian program manager at Oxfam. The U.N. assigned an emergency response coordinator, David Gressly, who has experience in Congo with local conflicts.

As a result, more Congolese are leading the official response. The affected communities are being consulted more. And those who survive the disease are being tasked to calm fears. In addition, the international community is more aware of the need to address the poverty and instability that feed the outbreak.

By focusing on local fears and beliefs as well as understanding local concerns, WHO and others may now find the trust they need to not only end the outbreak but also heal social wounds. The real emergency is not international. It is in the hearts of the Congolese.

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