What This Congolese City Is Doing To Stop Ebola From Spreading

Aug 15, 2019
Originally published on August 16, 2019 8:18 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Let's go now to the center of Africa, to a place we rarely hear from. Goma is a sprawling border city of 2 million in Democratic Republic of Congo. It's trying to keep at bay what's become the second largest Ebola outbreak in history. NPR's Eyder Peralta is there.

Welcome. Hey, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Can you just give us some context here? Because I understand this Ebola outbreak has basically remained in two provinces in Congo, at least up until now. But it's clearly spreading to Goma. There've been four cases. What is Goma doing take to keep Ebola from spreading even further?

PERALTA: Well, lots, and that's really important because this is a major transit hub. And you notice it as soon as you land. Before coming into the airport, you're asked to wash your hands with a bleach-water solution, and a nurse will take your temperature. Restaurants, banks, cellphone shops - they squeeze hand sanitizer as you walk in. And this is a country where three kisses are the norm.

And people are taking precautions. They're giving what is known as the Ebola greeting, which means you tap your elbows to say hello, instead of shaking hands or giving kisses. And of course, health authorities have vaccinated more than 1,000 people in this city who they believe may have come in contact with the virus.

CHANG: And I understand that two people who survived the virus in Goma were treated with new drugs. What are these new drugs? Can you tell us anything about them?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, this is huge. They are the first time that scientists have identified clearly effective treatments for people who have Ebola. And these are two regiments which help the immune system fight the virus, and they were - in trials done here in Congo, they were able to save about 70% of the people who were given the treatment.

CHANG: You mentioned that health workers are trying to vaccinate more people. But since Ebola was detected in Congo last year, there has been difficulty getting more and more people vaccinated. Can you explain why that is?

PERALTA: Insecurity. There are more than 100 armed groups in this part of Congo, and Ebola responders have been attacked. And that is fueled by a lot of mistrust and conspiracy theories that Westerners and the government have created Ebola to try and kill people here in Congo.

CHANG: So how concerned do people seem in Goma right now about these most recent cases?

PERALTA: The whole town is feeling the effects. You can't move without seeing medical trucks and tents. But I was in a neighborhood today where people - they had set up roadblocks because one of their neighbors had been robbed, and two of that neighbor's children had been shot by police. And they kept telling me, look - so much money is being poured into Ebola, but nothing is being done about the everyday insecurity that we face.

I spoke to Fidel Bafilemba, an activist here, and he thinks this Ebola outbreak offers a chance for the world to look at how it has continually failed Congo. One of the things that he points at is that the U.N. has its biggest peacekeeping mission in the world here, and yet Congolese are still being killed all the time. Let's listen to a bit of what he told me.

FIDEL BAFILEMBA: I think we had come to a point where we're realizing the hypocrisy, racism, hatred from the Western world to the Congolese people. This has been so since the first ever white man set his feet on the Congolese soil, and it's never changed.

PERALTA: People here in Goma, they feel abandoned. They have been betrayed again and again, not just by their government in Kinshasa but by the world. So he doesn't blame them for thinking that the people trying to help with Ebola are actually trying to hurt them.

CHANG: Yeah. That's NPR's Eyder Peralta in Goma, Congo.

Thank you, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF PULSHAR'S "MAERDREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.