On the first anniversary of the Ebola virus breaking out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Victorian journalist and humanitarian worker Brianna Piazza reveals what life’s like in the struggling country.
On the dusty brown streets of Beni, we are too scared to shake hands with anyone we meet. We don’t hug or kiss each other on the cheek. This is Ebola ground zero.
Locals have even developed a new greeting ritual. Those who know each other well – and understand Ebola’s deadly threat – raise their arms and touch elbows.
The virus is the stuff of nightmares. It has claimed more than 1700 lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo in one year. In Beni, at least 337 men, women and child have succumbed to the illness.
For me, paranoia is self-preservation. Every time I knock into someone accidentally, I reach for my hand sanitiser. My hands feel like sandpaper.
The virus starts like a flu, with a fever and body aches, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash and symptoms of a failing kidney and liver. In some it presents with bleeding gums and eyes.
Those struck down are quarantined in treatment centres, robbed of the chance to share a proper, and final hug goodbye.
I’ve been sent here from Melbourne for World Vision International, to share stories that will get Australia – and the world – to pay attention to the needs of a desperate, largely forgotten country.
Most Australians haven’t heard of Beni, a city on the edge of Virunga Park, famous for its endangered mountain gorillas.
Here, the fight to contain the spread of Ebola has many fronts.
Violence has wracked the region for years, even beyond the end of the Second Congo War in 2003, which killed five million.
Civilians have been dying from crippling violence and preventable illnesses for decades. So Ebola is just one on a list of woes.
About 100 different armed groups operate in North and South Kivu, which means we must tread carefully with every move we make. The day after I arrived, I woke to the news that 12 civilians had been killed just kilometres from my hotel.
The responders at ground zero of the Ebola crisis endure constant challenges every day.
I don’t carry a weapon. We don’t have armed guards. It’s considered the best chance to avoid being caught up in conflict.
Instead, we monitor the news, the radio and police reports for threats along our planned routes through the country. After work, my foreign colleagues and I have a 7pm curfew. It’s dangerous on the streets at night.
Surprisingly, Ebola zones are not ghost towns. People are largely continuing their normal lives in places like Beni.
Before I enter the World Vision office each day, staff check my temperature and make me wash my hands. At my hotel, reception staff pull on gloves when I hand them my keys. It’s hot and steamy, but I wear long sleeves.
In Goma, a major trade city on the border of the DRC and Rwanda, authorities take no chances. A confirmed case spurred the World Health Organisation to declare a public health emergency of international concern. On Tuesday, a second case was confirmed in Goma.
People entering the city must line up at checkpoints to wash their hands and have their temperatures recorded.
Buckets of water and hand sanitiser are the first thing you see in offices, shops and hotels, an eerie reminder of an invisible threat. It’s a simple and effective way to prevent the transmission of Ebola.
Health workers know prevention can save lives.
But it’s not always easy. They must also overcome disbelief and misinformation in the local communities as they battle the spread.
As I interview survivors, I’m conscious I’m at risk. And I know there’s a 67 per cent chance that I wouldn’t survive if I contracted the virus.
But as much as it terrifies me, I came here because I know these stories need to be told – and the Australian public isn’t hearing them.
If Ebola was on our doorstep, Australian media would rush to survivors, such as Gloria, 38, a nurse in DR Congo, who treated a patient without gloves, unaware she had Ebola.
The patient died from Ebola and when she heard the news, Gloria was vaccinated. But it was too late.
“I was terrified,” she recalls. “I was expecting to die. I could only think of my family.
“For a couple of days, I was feeling good but on the third day I started to have some of the symptoms. I had terrible headaches, fever and joint pain.”
“I told my husband not to touch me, to stay away from me when I was home.
“I would remember what they had told us at school about Ebola: It always meant dead.”
Early intervention saved her. She now educates her children on the importance of handwashing. Some mothers are too scared to allow their children outside.
So why must Australians care about a virus in a country 12,000 kilometres away?
Ebola knows no borders. Just one case of Ebola can threaten another city, another country, another continent.
The World Health Organisation has stated the outbreak poses a low threat internationally at this stage, but this outlook can quickly change.
WHO’s declaration leaves the international community with no excuses for looking away while Ebola marches through more communities.
Australia joined the international response to the last Ebola pandemic in West Africa, contributing $42 million and saving countless lives in 2014.
But this time, we have turned our back on the victims of Ebola and conflict in the DR Congo, while other countries, such as Canada, have already contributed $35 million this year.
It is possible to reach zero cases, but more international support is needed – and fast.
Since the declaration, the UK, US and other countries have come to the table to pledge support for the Ebola response.
We must do our fair share, and match Canada’s contribution, to tackle the virus before it becomes a global threat.
Otherwise, the world might never wake up from the nightmare.
- Brianna Piazza is a journalist from Melbourne now working as a field communications officer with World Vision