PPE, 21 days, chlorine, ‘treatment centres, safe burials

Hornelie, a seventeen year old UNICEF-supported radio reporter, stands outside her radio station in Mbandaka

PPE’, ‘21 days’, ‘chlorine’, ‘treatment centres’, ‘safe burials’ and, most of all, ‘Ebola’ are words that I hoped I wouldn’t hear again. I personally witnessed the unprecedented Ebola outbreak which consumed parts of West Africa between 2013 and 2016.  The damage and heartbreak it caused is something that will remain with me for a long time. The impact was devastating – Ebola killed more than 11,000 individuals and some 16,000 children lost parents or caregivers.

It was only normal I suppose to feel a certain trepidation boarding the flight from Kinshasa to Equateur Province – the epicentre of the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  As the cityscape turned into lush forest far below, I wondered – and hoped – will this outbreak will be different? Can it be contained? Will the lessons-learnt from the West African outbreak be applied here?

On touching down in Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur Province, it is clear that the response is in full throttle. Schools are equipped with buckets full of chlorine so that children can wash their hands; teams are tracing ‘contacts’, people that infected patients may have come into contact with, to verify they don’t have symptoms; health workers are visiting remote communities explaining how to stop the spread of Ebola; and temperatures are being taken at the port to make sure no one is entering the town carrying the disease.

There are two things that I notice straight away – both welcome.  First, the remarkable level of involvement of children in educating others.  I speak to one teenage girl who is a young radio journalist and has taken to the airwaves to warn others about the dangers of the disease.  In a school, I meet one boy who proudly explains how he instructs his family about the importance of handwashing and not touching others.  It’s a message I keep hearing repeated amongst a number of children. Second, the experimental Ebola vaccine is being rolled out in high-risk areas.  I’ve seen numerous people patiently queuing to receive the vaccine.  They’re not scared, they’re not stigmatised – they are individuals who know that they may have been inadvertently exposed to the virus and are proactively trying to mitigate the risk to themselves and their communities.

Filming an Ebola outbreak is always challenging – from both a safety perspective and an ethical one. As outsiders, we tend to focus on the deaths and to depict patients as helpless victims.  Too little media attention is given to the role of the community – probably the most important actor in countering Ebola.  Men, women and children are coming together with dignity as agents for change.  It is these empowered individuals and communities who will ultimately defeat the disease on the banks of the Congo River.

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Mark Naftalin

Mark Naftalin is a freelance videographer and photographer. He has been in DRC since early May filming and photographing UNICEF activities across the country. Previously, he worked as a videographer and photographer for UNICEF during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

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