The response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is struggling to bring the Ebola outbreak under control and the World Health Organization recently reported a rise in the number of new cases. The response is operating within a socio-political complex context, violence is ongoing (increasingly directed towards response workers) and there is a high level of mistrust between affected communities and response partners. The risk of Ebola spreading to other neighbouring provinces in the DRC, and to surrounding countries, continues to be high, writes Ingrid Gercama from CDAC Network member, Anthrologica.
A new brief from the Social Science in Humanitarian Action platform analyses local media and messages circulating on social media, including WhatsApp, and local radio and press outlets in the Beni and Butembo areas of North Kivu, DRC between February and April 2019. The brief, which was developed by Rachel Sweet (Harvard, University of Notre Dame) captures the growing number of warning messages and written threats transmitted as part of the escalation of violence against Ebola response teams during this period. It highlights that:
- Whilst some narratives still contest that Ebola is not a ‘real’ disease (that it is a ‘hoax’), most do not question the veracity of the disease. Rather, concerns are couched in general fatigue and distrust, and many messages convey a sense of incredulity that the virus continues to spread.
- Communities see themselves as ‘doing their part’ to contain Ebola (e.g. hand washing, safe burials) and question the motives of response teams: they view the significant financial and technical resources mobilised around Ebola as being at odds with the progress of the response.
- Messages repeat concerns that medical personnel may misdiagnose other illnesses as Ebola; that hygiene standards disrupt lifestyles including day-to-day gestures of community cohesion like greetings; that local authorities and religious leaders who support response efforts receive money or bribes from response teams; and that response personnel are paid to kill patients.
- There remains a vacuum of information about vaccination and concerns continue to circulate as to who is / is not being vaccinated, why and when. Messages suggest that the ring vaccine is biased towards those involved in the response and local political and economic elites (who “profit” from vaccination) to the detriment of the broader population. People continue to call for a more transparent vaccination strategy.
- A more extreme set of messages threatens direct violence against response personnel as well as local authorities and civilians who support response efforts. Messages implicate local political figures in propagating false narratives about response efforts.
The third Ebola Strategic Response Plan stresses a shift towards local ownership of the Ebola response, but in the context of North Kivu, ownership must go beyond conventional understandings of ‘community’. Messages reinforce the need to build trust across communities and with the numerous different population factions, particularly by adjusting response activities in light of local feedback. Community members continue to make multiple peaceful attempts to communicate with response partners and to explain concerns and opposition to the response in non-violent ways. Their on-going engagement and requests for more detailed information should be seen as positive. Their meaningful participation must be the basis for an effective response.
The Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform, a partnership between the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Anthrologica with support from UNICEF, the Wellcome Trust, DFID and others, is mobilising networks of anthropologists, social scientists and DRC experts to provide sociocultural insights and analyses of the political-economic context that can be used in the design of effective and appropriate strategies to tackle the outbreak. For further details please contact Juliet Bedford (firstname.lastname@example.org).