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As Ebola outbreak fades out, Congo prepares for COVID-19

Just days before the latest Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was declared officially over, a new case of the deadly virus was confirmed on Friday. The outbreak began in 2018, infecting thousands of people. Special correspondent Benedict Moran and video journalist Jorgen Samso report on how it was contained and what can be learned as the coronavirus spreads in Africa.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Compared to other parts of the world, coronavirus was slow to reach the continent of Africa. But the infection is spreading rapidly. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the continent has grown to more than 13 thousand, with around 700 deaths so far. This new pandemic comes at a time when areas in Central Africa had just about claimed victory in the battle against Ebola. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Benedict Moran and video journalist Jorgen Samso bring us the story.

  • Benedict Moran:

    On March 3, in this Ebola clinic in the city of Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, medical workers celebrated a milestone. Semida Masika was their last Ebola patient. And she was cured. Before Masika left the clinic for home, she thanked the doctors and nurses who saved her.

  • Semida Masika:

    Frankly, I don't know what to tell you. I only ask God to bless your work and your efforts.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Ebola can cause headaches, fever, and severe hemorrhaging. It's transmitted by contact with bodily fluids. Without treatment, it is nearly always fatal. The outbreak has infected more than 3500 people and taken more than 2000 lives. It was the largest in the Congo's history, and the second-largest in the world, after the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. But now, ebola treatment centers are quiet…. Almost. Until yesterday, no new cases had been reported since February 17, and the 21-day incubation period was about to expire for the second time. The World Health Organization seemed poised to declare that the epidemic was over. Then, a single case was reported. And so the fight continues. But getting even this far has been an extraordinary achievement. Ibrahima Soce Fall is the WHO's Assistant Director-General for Emergencies Response.

  • Dr. Ibrahima Socé Fall:

    It took a lot of work to come to this point. You have recorded more than three thousand five hundred cases, and over 2000 deaths in this very complex environment.

  • Benedict Moran:

    This outbreak began in August 2018, in the remote north of the country. Ebola then reached major cities, including here in Beni, and risked spreading across East Africa and beyond. Thousands of international and Congolese health workers took part in the response. They worked in treatment centers.

  • Sound:

    Singing

  • Benedict Moran:

    And they helped bury the dead. Trying to end this outbreak has not been easy. For the past twenty years, this part of Africa has been convulsed by war. That sometimes prevented health workers from reaching patients.

  • Dr. Ibrahima Socé Fall:

    You have more than, you know, more than a hundred armed groups operating in that area. So to reach the most remote areas was extremely difficult for our teams.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Authorities set up checkpoints on major roads to take the temperature of travelers. Anyone with a fever was told to isolate themselves at home, and tracked in case their condition deteriorated. Health workers had access to a new vaccine, and it was used to immunize more than 300-thousand Congolese. But the spread of misinformation caused major setbacks.

  • Sound:

    Preaching

  • Benedict Moran:

    Some churches spread falsehoods about Ebola, saying for example that it could be cured with holy water. Meanwhile, other rumors, including one that Ebola didn't exist, and another that it was a plot to control the population, went viral on social media platforms. The result was deep mistrust of the Ebola response. Many patients refused to share information with medical workers attempting to track and monitor their contacts. Trish Newport worked in Ebola treatment centers for the international medical group Doctors Without Borders. She understands why the population was concerned.

  • Trish Newport:

    If I didn't trust someone and I had Ebola in, the people I didn't trust came to me and they said, can you give me a list at everyone close to you in your life so I can go to their home and follow them twice a day for 21 days? I also wouldn't give the list.

  • Benedict Moran:

    The mistrust culminated in startling violence against Ebola responders. Rebel groups and angry civilians attacked health centers killing 11 health workers, and injuring dozens. The violence prompted Ebola responders to suspend operations. Some health workers even went into hiding. Newport says communities only began to cooperate with Ebola responders once they were allowed to participate in their own care more directly. For example, by building their own isolation and treatment units.

  • Trish Newport:

    So when they had a center that they trusted and they felt connected to, it made such a difference and it made such a difference in the transmission in the community, because as soon as someone got slightly sick they just came.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Meanwhile, medical workers used the airwaves to tackle false or misleading rumors.

  • Sound:

    Ebola

  • Benedict Moran:

    And brought lessons on Ebola and prevention directly to schools and markets. Katson Maliro worked for the WHO on the communication efforts.

  • Katson Maliro:

    As the number of Ebola cases went down the community started to have confidence in us. We told them, ok, you followed our preventative measures, and now look, the disease is leaving your village. That was a huge joy.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Joy. But, not quite yet victory. Even as the DR Congo is pivoting to stopping the spread of coronavirus by using many of the same measures it has used in the fight to defeat Ebola.

  • Katson Maliro:

    COVID-19 is a disease of contact, just that. Without contact, there's no contamination. Just like Ebola. The fight against Ebola helped the community understand that we could also fight against other diseases, just by washing our hands. That's so satisfying for us.

  • Benedict Moran:

    The World Health Organization notes that many more Congolese are now trained on the treatment of infectious diseases thanks to their work during the Ebola crisis. One of them is nurse Kavira Kavota.

  • Esperance Kavira Kavota:

    A lot of foreigners came here with their own experience and they trained us. It helped us. In the event of a new outbreak, we'll be able to take charge of the response ourselves.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Frontline health workers like Kavota are going from one outbreak to another. But they appear to be on the verge of one victory, at least for now.

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