The Democratic Republic of the Congo, that vast, equator-spanning country at the heart of the African continent, has experienced 10 Ebola outbreaks since 1976. The 10th one is ongoing in the conflict-riven northeast.
The ninth outbreak, though, ended as an exemplary success, one we can learn from as we battle future would-be pandemics, argues Ariana A. Berengaut in Foreign Affairs. It began in May in Equateur Province in the country’s west, and killed 33 people before it was declared over in July. Even though the disease had spread to a city with a population of over one million—where density can make contagion more rampant—health workers were able to quickly stop it.
How do you arrest a deadly and potentially fast-spreading disease? The successful response to the May outbreak “required global cooperation, international institutions, and far-sighted investments in science, health, and governance that have enabled countries to tackle their own problems before they become everyone else’s,” Berengaut writes. In short, the kind of plodding and planning that is never as attention-getting as building weapons and walls. The introduction of an Ebola vaccine—the result of long years of research and investment—was critical, but so was training local health care workers. So was having a World Health Organization and United Nations capable of mounting an effective emergency response.
Ebola spreads through human contact, inflicting fever and severe pain before killing around half of those infected. To date, the majority of deaths from the disease occurred during the West African epidemic of 2014 to 2016. In this age of easy travel, that outbreak stirred global fear. Donald Trump, campaigning for the US presidency, called for flights to be stopped. But as Berengaut writes, “governments cannot build walls tall enough or seal their borders tight enough to keep diseases out.”
Congo’s 10th outbreak has already been more deadly than its ninth, and the director-general of the WHO warned that the security situation in the region where it is located—with 120 violent incidents this year—will make it more challenging to stop Ebola there. On both the local and global scale, disease makes our failures to get along more dangerous.