Ebola responders in DR Congo demand more protection after attacks

Medical workers fighting Ebola held a protest in Butembo, Democratic Republic of Congo, on April 24. (Photos by our Observers)
Medical workers fighting Ebola held a protest in Butembo, Democratic Republic of Congo, on April 24. (Photos by our Observers)

Medical workers fighting Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo are demanding that authorities provide better protection for them after an attack on a treatment centre left one doctor dead.

Distrust of the disease and of the medical personnel working to contain it has led to violence, even as the outbreak, the second-largest ever, enters its eighth month. The outbreak has killed 970 people and sickened 1,480 as of April 30, according to the Ministry of Health.

Dr. Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung,a Cameroonian epidemiologist with the World Health Organization, was killed on April 19 when armed men attacked a hospital in Butembo, in North Kivu Province. It was the latest reminder of the risks that Ebola responders face in the northeastern region, where the epidemic has hit hardest and which has long been a conflict zone between armed groups and security forces.

Several treatment centres in the area have been attacked in recent months, and a nurse was killed in Vuhovi, in North Kivu Province, in February by a group of men armed with bows and arrows.

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Many residents, having endured years of violence in the region, are skeptical of Ebola responders. They question the medical workers' focus on the virus instead of other diseases, like malaria, that regularly affect the local population. They often do not understand the risks associated with Ebola and are fearful of isolation units and vaccines, preferring instead to remain at home, which increases the chances of infection.

"Here, money is always associated with insecurity”

Umbo Salama, a journalist based in Butembo, said residents' hostility toward medical workers stems from their suspicion about the foreign aid pouring into the fight against Ebola.

If you say something positive about the Ebola fight, people think you are being paid off by the first responders. Some people believe that doctors are making money from this disease and that it's not in their interest to completely eradicate it.

Money is at the heart of a lot of the frustration and suspicion. Locals see the international money pouring in to fight Ebola, and they see the people who drive around in SUVs, which they consider arrogant behaviour. They believe there's a lot of money at stake, and in this conflict-ridden region, money is always associated with insecurity.

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"We are constantly under threat"

Dozens of doctors and nurses held a protest in Butembo on April 24, calling for more protection. Dr. Adelard Kalima, president of a local doctors' organisation, took part in the protest and said that Ebola responders face constant threats.

Ebola is decimating the population of Butembo, but there are still people who don’t believe this disease exists and who blame medical workers for the deaths. We’ve documented a number of attacks on treatment centres and personnel.

We organised the protest because we can no longer work under these conditions. We gave the authorities a list of four demands. We want protection for medical personnel both at the clinics and when they go home at night, because we are constantly under threat.

We want thorough investigations to be carried out to determine the perpetrators of these attacks. We want to set up a dialogue with the locals, to make them understand that we are here to save lives, not to kill people. And finally, we want all the medical professionals working in the region to be paid a bonus as compensation for the risks they take on.

Twitter users shared photos of the medical workers' protest.

Police have arrested 11 men in connection with the attack on the Butembo hospital on April 19. Four of the men are affiliated with the Maï-Maï militia, an armed group in existence since the Second Congo War.