The current ebola epidemic in the Congo is one of the many consequences of the Congo Wars, themselves the result of US support for Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame, in what is part of a familiar pattern of our government’s "humanitarian" support for one faction in a distant country leading to terrible results.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has endured decades of civil war since the deposition of strongman President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 at the end of the First Congo War. The DRC, a former Belgian colony, suffered among the very worst colonialist abuses, and subsequently has suffered horrific misrule, exploitation, domestic violence, foreign invasion and looting, and repeated outbreaks of disease.
Remember the Rwandan genocide in 1994? Supposedly, the Hutu-dominated government of Rwanda launched an unprovoked attack on the Tutsi minority that went on until the Tutsi army of Paul Kagame successfully invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda and put an end to the slaughter, making himself dictator of Rwanda. The US and Britain backed Kagame, France and Belgium the Hutu government. A very important article from 2017 in the Guardian, by Helen C. Epstein, shows that CIA support for Kagame’s "Rwandan Patriotic Front" goes back years before the Hutu massacres and was itself the result of our support for Ugandan strongman Museveni, who was Kagame’s patron. The Hutu massacre was at least partially provoked by incessant raids on Rwanda by Kagame’s RPF.
The Second Congo War, sometimes known as the "African World War" and the most lethal conflict since World War II, causing around 5 million deaths, started with the Rwandan invasion in 1998, allegedly to protect Tutsis living in the eastern DRC. Museveni’s Uganda also participated in the invasion, and both countries have plundered the rich natural resources of the country. Endemic chaos has reigned in the eastern DRC, particularly Kivu and Ituri provinces, in the two decades since the invasion, with between 50 and 100 armed groups currently active.
The current ebola epidemic has ravaged the eastern region of Kivu since August 2018, causing 2597 cases and 1746 deaths. It currently ranks as the second-deadliest ebola outbreak after the 2013-2016 West African epidemic, which killed 11,300. Experts fear, however, that the current outbreak could end up being worse than the previous one if the spread is not stopped.
On July 17, 2019, the WHO declared the current Kivu ebola epidemic in the DRC an international emergency, after the nation’s government confirmed on July 14 that the disease had spread to Goma, a city of around two million people on the porous border with Rwanda. This development sparked fears that this could be a tipping point in the epidemic, as tens of thousands cross the border regularly on foot and the city has an international airport with flights to Ethiopia.
The Goma outbreak was triggered when a pastor traveled by bus from the nearby city of Butembo while infected but asymptomatic. He became symptomatic in that sprawling city but even after receiving treatment, succumbed. Fortunately, care workers managed to find and vaccinate all the other passengers on the bus and no further cases have been reported. Nevertheless, concern still runs high. Rwanda, thus far, is prepared to fight the disease if it crosses the border, as healthcare personnel in nearby areas have already been vaccinated.
Despite the availability of a reliable vaccine, developed for West Africa in 2014, it has been difficult to stop the spread in the DRC. This is due to violence in the Kivu region, as well as an endemic climate of public mistrust toward outside medical workers which has led to violent attacks on them. Many aid organizations have withdrawn from the area after personnel were killed. From the perspective of local people traumatized by years of chaos, whenever a family member is diagnosed, outsiders wearing bizarre protective suits swoop in, steal their belongings, and take them away to a mysterious place which they aren’t allowed to visit, and where their family member generally dies. Following this sad series of events, families are not then allowed to carry out traditional funeral rites. It has reached the point that 25% of the population of Butembo considers ebola a hoax.
The original vaccine, developed by Merck, has a 93% effectiveness rate, but the DRC government has recently decided to supplement it with a second, untested, vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, which inconveniently requires a second dose, as supplies of the Merck vaccine are insufficient for the large-scale vaccination of the population of the area. Health minister Oly Olunga has resigned in protest at this decision, saying it will lead to public confusion and worsen distrust.
In order to fight this mistrust, organizations have begun training local people in safe practices for caring for and burying ebola patients, so that families can care for their own loved ones at home. Additionally, the CUBE (Biosecure Emergency Care Unit for Outbreaks) has been developed, a clear plastic module where a patient can be cared for via gloves built into the walls, without medical workers having to don protective suits, enabling family members to visit patients and see what’s going on.
The risks of further spread of the Congo epidemic can be seen in the effects of the West African ebola epidemic, Beyond the direct deaths of 11,000+, this resulted in long-term stunted economic growth in the affected countries and more than thousands of additional deaths from malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV, caused by the disproportionate deaths of healthcare personnel.
Stepping back from the immediate emergency, the current ebola outbreak seems to be part of a pattern where US foreign policy, in pursuit of some allegedly humanitarian goal – stopping the Hutus from massacring Tutsis, stopping Qaddafi from massacring rival tribes in Bengazi, stopping Assad from massacring Sunnis – leads to horrible "unforeseen consequences" down the line: Islamist slave markets in "liberated" Libya, ISIS murdering and enslaving Yezidis, and now ebola in the Congo. Perhaps one day, instead of having to make enormous efforts to repair the consequences of our misguided policies, we can stop enacting those policies in the first place.
Morgan E. Hunter received her PhD in Classics from the University of California at Berkeley in 2019. She also tweeted as @Molotov_1917 as part of the award-winning #1917LIVE Twitter project that reconstructed the daily events of the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Russian Civil War.