Ebola is ravaging the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a country riven by violent conflict and neglected for decades by the international community. The World Health Organization has less than half of the $98 million it needs to confront the crisis. And the United States government has undermined its own experts with a slow-footed response and cumbersome aid restrictions.
More than 2,100 people have been infected in the current outbreak, first reported in August of last year, and nearly 1,500 of them have died. Those numbers still pale in comparison to the Ebola outbreak that began in 2014, during which more than 28,000 people were infected and more than 11,000 died. That’s in part because the current outbreak has benefited from a newly available Ebola vaccine and a quicker, better coordinated response from the World Health Organization.
But experts worry that the worst is yet to come. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the region in response to ethnic violence, potentially carrying the virus far beyond Congo’s borders. The outbreak has already spread into neighboring Uganda; if it reaches South Sudan, a country dotted with refugee camps and teeming with instability, containment could become nearly impossible.
To prevent that from happening, health care workers will have to eradicate the deep mistrust within Congo’s borders. Rumors abound that the virus was brought to the country by aid workers or that it is a hoax devised by the country’s government to prevent certain districts from voting in the recent presidential election. Such suspicions have led many to avoid Ebola treatment centers, hide sick family members from foreign doctors and refuse to cooperate with other control measures.
The United States Agency for International Development, or U.S.A.I.D., says that the best way to combat this mistrust is for foreign aid workers to address other needs in the region in addition to combating Ebola. Most Congolese are more concerned with malaria, malnutrition and diarrheal diseases. Tackling these problems would go a long way toward building trust and make it easier to conquer Ebola in the long run.
However, such far-reaching programs were effectively prohibited last fall when the Trump administration restricted nonemergency aid to Congo. The administration said that the restriction was meant to penalize the country for its failure to curb human trafficking and that the Ebola response would not be affected. But it’s unclear whether any portion of U.S.A.I.D.’s more ambitious agenda will be allowed to proceed.
The administration would do well to lift that restriction. Even better: Congress could amend current human trafficking laws to prevent them from being weaponized in this way. Human trafficking is an abomination, but withholding development aid will hardly solve that crisis.
Last week, more than 10 months after Congo’s Ebola outbreak began, the Trump administration activated the C.D.C.’s emergency operations center. That’s a welcome move — it will enable the agency to quickly deploy many more resources to the crisis. But it would have been far more effective before hundreds of thousands of Congolese began fleeing the region.
The United States is not the only country that could do more to address the current crisis. The W.H.O. has been much more effective in this outbreak than during previous ones, but its efforts are still being stymied by a colossal funding shortfall. The organization’s decision-making body created a global contingency fund in 2015, after the last major Ebola outbreak, to avoid exactly this situation — but contributions to that fund have fallen far short of what is needed.
Were the W.H.O. were to declare a “public health emergency of international concern,” it might help close the funding gap by drawing the world’s attention to the growing crisis. But the organization has repeatedly declined to do so and, according to critics, has not adequately explained the reasoning behind its decision.
If the current situation doesn’t qualify as a global health emergency, it’s hard to imagine what would.