By Chandrima Das
Flying to Goma from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, you might be reminded of the aerial scenes in Jurassic Park: acre after acre of enormous leafy trees, lead to the majestic Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes. Yet underneath that lush canopy, a bloody conflict has raged for more than 25 years. Hundreds of armed groups struggle to control these areas, rich with natural resources.
UN Peacekeepers have existed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in some form since 1960. The current peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO, was established in 2010 in the aftermath of the African World War, which killed 5 million people. MONUSCO is meant to support the peace agreement between eleven countries. The area remains volatile, although UN Peacekeepers have had some success, pushing back armed groups away from civilian areas, facilitating relatively peaceful elections, and distributing humanitarian aid. Now UN Peacekeepers are taking on a new responsibility: fighting Ebola.
The first case of Ebola was found in rural DRC almost a year ago and since then, it has infected 2,512 people and killed 1,676. Recently, the first death was reported in Goma, a city on the border of Rwanda that is home to two million residents.
For the fourth time in history of the World Health Organization, on July 17, 2019, it declared a global health emergency because Ebola is one of the “world’s most dangerous viruses in one of the world’s most dangerous areas.”
Dr. Tedros Ashanamo Ghebreyessu, WHO Director General , said that it is critical to keep transport routes and borders open to avoid economically hurting the very people that need to be helped. He continued, “this is about mothers, fathers and children – too often entire families are stricken. At the heart of this are communities and individual tragedies.”
Moreover, the lives of health workers trying to help those suffering from Ebola are at risk for more than just the deadly virus. Just this past week, two health workers were killed in North Kivu in eastern Congo by armed groups as a result of widespread rumors that Ebola is a political conspiracy and that workers are harvesting organs of victims. Eastern Congo remains unstable and health workers continue to be threatened by armed groups operating in the region. Since January, there have been 198 attacks on health facilities, 58 health workers have been injured and seven killed by armed groups.
While Ebola was only just declared a global health emergency, peacekeepers have been assisting in the response since the first case of Ebola was reported. So what are peacekeepers doing to help in the fight against Ebola?
Logistics: Peacekeepers are providing WHO, UN agencies, and the Congolese Health Ministry with critical transportation needs such as air travel and cars. They are also helping to locate buildings that can be used as Ebola response centers, IT support, and water, food, and electricity for Ebola response workers.
Security: As Eastern Congo remains unstable due to the outbreak, peacekeepers are trying to provide secure environments for health workers to operate. There has been an increase in UN Peacekeepers deployed to the region, including a quick reaction force which can more quickly and efficiently respond to security challenges.
Combating Conspiracies: Many communities believe Ebola is a conspiracy and health workers are bringing the deadly virus to their communities instead of trying to fight it. Peacekeepers are broadcasting Ebola awareness messages on Radio Okapi, the UN run radio that broadcasts across the country in both French and Swahili, calling on the population to adhere to hygiene protocols that protect against Ebola and trying to build the trust between health workers and those vulnerable communities.
There is a long road ahead to contain the Ebola virus in the region, and without a doubt it will take a global response to do so. UN Peacekeepers will be key to providing security to the health workers who are already risking their lives to prevent this deadly virus from taking any more lives.