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Ebola finally defeated, Congo faces COVID-19

In June, the World Health Organization announced the good news that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo was over. But now, the country is grappling with a new health challenge: COVID-19. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports in partnership with the Global Health Reporting Center.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have brought you a number of stories on the devastating Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    But the end of June brought good news. The World Health Organization and announced that the outbreak was over.

    Special correspondent Monica Villamizar spent time in the province of North Kivu when the outbreak was raging and health workers were caught in the middle of a deadly war.

    Tonight, in partnership with the Global Health Reporting Center, her latest report on the new health challenge there, COVID-19.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    In the late spring, these health workers were still going door to door, visiting contacts of the last known Ebola patients.

  • Man (through translator):

    How is your head? And are you vomiting?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Asking questions and checking for fever.

  • Man (through translator):

    Your temperature is good. We will be back tomorrow to check it out.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    This was the final chapter of the Ebola epidemic that rocked North Kivu, killing more than 2,200 people in the last two years.

    The Ebola treatment centers, once overflowing, now sit empty. But even as children turn this one into a makeshift playground, there's no rest for the weary. The new threat is coronavirus.

  • Syahuswa Kamble (through translator):

    We saw that, in the West, COVID-19 is killing hundreds of people a day. It's even more dangerous than Ebola. We are very afraid.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    I met Jean-Jacques Muyembe late last year, when he was leading the charge against Ebola. He helped find the first effective treatment. But now he's heading up the nationwide effort to contain COVID.

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe (through translator):

    Ebola showed that politicians need to call on scientists in a crisis, and the scientific community should not disappoint.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The first case was identified in March, in Kinshasa, the capital, A city of 12 million people. A lockdown began three weeks later. But after fierce complaints, it was loosened in mid-May, even as new infections kept going up.

    Anne Rimoin is an American epidemiologist who has run a research and training program in DRC for nearly 20 years.

  • Anne Rimoin:

    The real picture of what's going on in the interior of the country is very, very difficult to paint at this point without widespread access to testing, really good disease surveillance and an understanding of what's happening on the ground.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Despite vast mineral wealth, including gold, diamonds and cobalt, or in part because of that wealth, DRC has a long history of suffering, brutal rule by Belgians, local dictators, corruption, poverty and civil war.

    Life expectancy here is amongst the lowest in the world.

    What's the state of the health system in Congo right now?

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe (through translator):

    The health system is very weak, very weak. And the outbreaks are detected very, very late, because the health system doesn't work very well, doesn't function.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    But Muyembe says success against Ebola shows it isn't hopeless.

    What's the message for you to tell the world now about Ebola?

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe (through translator):

    Now we have the vaccine. We have treatment. Ebola is now a curable disease.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    In late June, the two-year outbreak was declared over.

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe (through translator):

    We will have small outbreaks, sporadic outbreaks, but it will be quickly controlled, and not with a high fatality, like we have now.

  • Anne Rimoin:

    Jean-Jacques refers to me as his daughter. My wedding photo is in his office.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Rimoin has been working alongside Muyembe since 2002, trying to build up DRC's public health capacity, training doctors and nurses to spot and respond to outbreaks.

  • Anne Rimoin:

    But it isn't parachute science that's going to save the day. It's going to be investing in people like Jean-Jacques Muyembe and all of these young scientists that he has trained over time who are really the future of outbreak prevention and control.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Rimoin says the critical challenge is to stomp out epidemics while they're still small.

  • Anne Rimoin:

    You get it while it's still just a spark, because, once you have a wildfire, it's very, very difficult to contain.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    That's exactly what happened with the Ebola outbreak in Eastern DRC. Containing it took more than two years of grueling effort, in the midst of a civil war.

    That fighting in North Kivu hasn't stopped. And health care is still what you would call low-tech.

  • Anne Rimoin:

    Congo is not a place where you are going to have great access to vaccines and therapeutics early on. The key in a place like the DRC is having adequate access to testing, contact tracing, being able to isolate individuals who are sick, and to quarantine the people around them.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    In DRC, the vast majority of coronavirus cases are in Kinshasa. In North Kivu, cases are still rare, but they are getting ready all the same, here, making masks.

    These people told us they hope the hard lessons of Ebola will stick.

  • Muchindo Jean Marie Vianney (through translator):

    We should respect the social distancing. And they tell us not to forget washing hands, like as we were doing for Ebola prevention.

  • Kaa Fadhill (through translator):

    This is a disease we can't resist. It can kill us all.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    In a place where nothing comes easy, COVID-19 could prove to be the hardest test so far.

    I'm Monica Villamizar for the "PBS NewsHour."

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