Even before the outbreak of Ebola in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), communities in this province of over five million inhabitants had already been weakened and rendered vulnerable by an armed conflict that has lasted for 20 years. If this Ebola epidemic is not contained quickly, it will be devastating for those communities. A combination of donor funding for rapid response and availability of specialists willing to take on the challenge—such as Jamie LeSueur, IFRC’s head of Ebola response operation—is essential.
Meet Jamie who, thanks to support from IFRC’s partners, has deployed quickly to the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak to lead local response efforts. He has one of the toughest jobs in the IFRC. He flies anywhere on the continent on a moment’s notice to help lead dangerous and complex operations until long-term staff can be hired. In DRC, Jamie and his colleagues are facing a triple threat of conflict, community resistance and a rising number of infections and deaths.
“Understandably, people are scared. It’s an incredibly tough time for them and we are trying to keep them safe while respecting local cultural norms. But it has been tough and of the major challenges we have encountered is community resistance or lack of understanding of what Ebola is. That has made it difficult to access some of the communities we want to support,” Jamie says.
This is the first time this part of DRC has faced an outbreak of Ebola, which partly explains why there are so many misconceptions about the disease, hence the mistrust towards health works and volunteers. On some occasions, this mistrust has led to confrontations. DRC Red Cross teams have faced incidents of violence and aggression from communities resisting safe and dignified burial protocols since the start of the Ebola outbreak in North Kivu.
In September, one Red Cross volunteer was injured when people threw stones at a vehicle transporting a safe burial team. On 2 October, three Red Cross volunteers were injured – two severely – when they were attacked while carrying out a safe and dignified burial in the city of Butembo in the north-east of the DRC.
In the face of such challenges, community sensitization becomes a key priority for Jamie and his team. “Our community engagement volunteers are working hard to sensitize the community, to help them better understand what Ebola is and how we can work together to make sure we contain it,” explains Jamie. This enhances community acceptance and reduces the potential for violence.
“Community acceptance, that’s our security,” Jamie says.
The operation teams live in temporary housing, far from their families, working round the clock and under a risk of getting affected by this deadly virus themselves.
An operation as this one is like a giant machine in which every piece plays its own important role. And despite the challenges, every part must function in perfect coordination.
As Jamie puts it: “We work hand in hand with local authorities, other humanitarian organisations and of course, with the communities. That is the only way we can be sure we will overcome this virus.”
An important factor in the success of an operation like this is the availability of funding. The deployment of Jamie was made possible thanks to the support from Norwegian Red Cross. Such financial support is what makes it possible to assemble teams of specialists and ultimately save lives. The Red Cross Ebola response team in North Kivu consists of staff and volunteers from DRC Red Cross, IFRC and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They focus on helping communities conduct safe and dignified burials for people believed to have died from the disease, giving communities the first line of defence with Ebola prevention and hygiene messages, and strengthening water and sanitation systems. They are also enhancing infection prevention and control measures in hospitals to promote the safety and security of health personnel and high-risk communities.
To hear more on Jamie’s and his colleagues’ efforts in North Kivu, follow our Twitter account (@IFRCAfrica) where we are publishing some behind the scenes videos.