A medic wearing protective suit is seen during collection of swab samples for COVID-19 test in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
HIV/Aids, Lassa fever, and tuberculosis are just some of the communicable diseases that African health
experts are used to dealing with, and many realised the danger of the coronavirus
as soon as they saw the cases rising in China and Europe.
Yet, of all the diseases the continent has grappled with, the worst-ever Ebola
epidemic that killed more than 11,300 people in West Africa
between 2014-16 was instrumental in changing the response to health
emergencies in several African nations. Lessons from that outbreak were applied to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been grappling with an epidemic since 2018.
prompted the World Health
Organization to change its emergency response structure, rapid laboratory testing and changing the design of treatment centres. Many health workers in Africa
say they learned valuable insights from Ebola
that can be applied to coronavirus
Here are some of their stories.
Jules Aly Koundouno, 35, head of the coronavirus
response at the Donka Epidemiological Treatment Center in Conakry, Guinea. Koundouno contracted Ebola in 2014 while working. Post recovery, he has been at the front line of the country’s coronavirus response based on his experiences with Ebola. His team currently cares for 150 patients.
“I learned a lot when I was sick with Ebola — I suffered and saw how other people were suffering. As soon as I got out of hospital, I decided to make a real commitment to save lives.
Earlier this year, when I saw the case counts increasing in China and Europe, I started preparing the health and administrative authorities in my city by giving them information and proposing control strategies.” He instructed hospital staff on the use of personal protective equipment. Some nurses, he said, lacked basic training and only used face masks.
“Patients must be in individual rooms, but unfortunately that’s not the case at the moment. Ebola also taught me that you have to think about your own safety so as not to expose others. I haven’t lived with my family since I became involved in the Covid response and I’ve stopped seeing friends.”
Dr Petronella Mugoni, 41, Pretoria-based public health communications specialist who researched the community response during the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo
says, “In Congo, women were more affected by Ebola for a variety of reasons: They have traditionally had greater participation in care-giving, child care and burial practices. They were also likely to be more resistant to accept health messages early on the response. If you reach women with health information, you reach the whole household.”
“A standardised response on a national level is critical and the messaging has to be strong. Citizens need information on how to protect themselves. Prevention is the most important thing, because many African countries won’t be able to cope with a large public health crisis.”
Democratic Republic of Congo
Trish Newport, 44, Geneva-based deputy program manager for emergency response for Doctors Without Borders who worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
She says “One of our local staff said when I asked her why surveillance and contact tracing wasn’t working: ‘If you had Ebola and someone that you didn’t trust came up to you and asked you for a list of everyone close to you so that they could go to their house every day for 21 days, would you do it?’ It was such a great explanation. We had all these tools, but they weren’t as effective as they could have been because we missed the first step.”
“The health system needs to be supported. It’s going to be overwhelmed. The positive is that there’s a lot of capacity that was built during the Ebola outbreak; doctors, nurses and logisticians who now have incredible experience with experimental treatments, vaccines, surveillance. But we have to make sure that there’s access to care.”
Dr Junior Ikomo, 33Referring doctor at the non-government organization Alima in Mambasa, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
It’s been more than 120 days since his last Ebola case, though the epidemic continues elsewhere in eastern Congo, where it has killed more than 2,200 people.
“One day, they called all the medical staff to ask us about our psychological state. ‘Are there people who are stressed and could use a rest?’ Can you imagine, they asked if there were volunteers, people who were frustrated or stressed, they only had to raise their hand. No one did. We waited five minutes. I felt like we were all determined to save lives and there was this humanism that propelled us. I’ll never forget that.”
Ikomo was born and raised in the province that is home to the Ebola river that gave the virus its name, and he heard stories of the disease as a child. The Ebola epidemic has prepared many local communities for Covid-19, Ikomo says.
“The fact that the population already has the experience surviving the Ebola epidemic means we all know the standards and have the knowledge of preventive measures — using soap to wash your hands, no touching, the social distancing. These are things the community already mastered before Covid-19 arrived. I think this will help us.”