Over 1,200 people have died in the latest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo). According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Border, this is the worst ever reported case and the second-largest Ebola outbreak.
To exacerbate the crisis, mistrust from the local people coupled with armed attacks on staff and treatment centers are hindering efforts to control the deadly disease.
One doctor who worked at the epicenter of the epidemic recalled the paranoia that sets in after being confronted with the virus every day.
Obstetrician and medical aid worker Dr. Benjamin Black was already in Sierra Leone when Ebola struck there. Black was there with MSF to improve services for women and their babies because Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
“During that time I was eating, sleeping, waking, and breathing Ebola. It influenced everything,” said Black, who explained that even normal everyday human interactions changed. “You don’t touch other people. That’s not just at work. That’s all the time,” Black articulated.
The Ebola virus had killed over 11,000 people and infected thousands more since the epidemic was declared over in 2016.
Video footage like these is a glaring reminder of the deadly impact of the Ebola virus in West Africa. As of May 22, 2019, the Ebola situation reported 1,877 cases and 1,248 total deaths, according to MSF.
Black recalled how he felt at the onset of the outbreak: “I absolutely was terrified and I think that’s true of many of my colleagues. It was a huge unknown. The situation was growing around us. It felt that it was exponential and there were very limited responses coming into the country.”
“We didn’t know a huge amount about Ebola,” Black continued, “It was unprecedented.” Little was known about the virus outbreak because there had never been anything like that before, he recollected.
Then came the armed attacks on health workers and treatment centers, impeding efforts to control the deadly virus. Black then realized that treatment could not take place without the acceptance from the local community.
This is because not all the local people have trust in the government or the aid agencies. They had “experienced seeing family members, or community members going to these Ebola treatment centers and never coming back,” said Black.
This created a negative impact and made people frightened and distrust medical aid workers.
People heard “alternative narratives within the community as to what was going on whether that be that this was a result of witchcraft, or curses, or whether this was a conspiracy brought by Westerners,” said Black.
The misunderstanding highlighted the importance of engaging with the local community early, listening to them, and understanding their fears, said Black.
He explained how the reaction of the local population changed as more survivors returned to their homes and told their stories.
“You know I went into the Ebola treatment center and actually you know, yes they are wearing these very frightening yellow suits. But then they did look after me and … I’ve come back and I can tell you that they didn’t harvest my organs, or steal my blood, or inject me with the disease,’’ said Black.
The Ebola crisis has also taken a psychological toll on the medical staff. Health workers, both local and international, could not help being affected by seeing people dying on such a large scale.
“I was paranoid about the people around me, about the people I worked with, the people that I was caring for. I was also paranoid to myself and what would happen if I got infected,” said Black as he recalled his own fears.
Includes reporting from The Associated Press and Doctors Without Borders