After Deadly Attacks On Ebola Responders, WHO Watches Congo Outbreak From Outside

Nov 29, 2019
Originally published on December 2, 2019 8:05 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why would someone kill aid workers who are trying to contain Ebola? Someone did in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They killed four people who'd been working in the eastern part of that African country. The violence has led the World Health Organization to withdraw more than 100 of its workers from the region.

Dr. Margaret Harris is among them. She is a spokesperson for the organization and is now in the DRC city of Goma. Welcome to the program.

MARGARET HARRIS: Thank you very much for having me.

INSKEEP: How were the four people killed?

HARRIS: Unfortunately, some groups - guerrilla groups in the area of a place called Biakato Mines decided to attack the WHO base, which is used as a base of operations, but it's also a camp where the staff live so that they can be close as possible to the areas where people need their help. And this group came in. They were an armed group. They overwhelmed police who were guarding the base and killed two drivers and vaccinator and injured a lot of other people.

Separately but around the same time, people from the same group, we think - I mean, we don't have confirmation exactly who they were - attacked a center for coordinating the operations in an area called Mangina about 30 kilometers away and killed one of the police guarding that particular area.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you know why this armed group would attack the WHO?

HARRIS: There has been a constant narrative that Ebola isn't real and that it's being used as a means of earning money by elite groups within the society. We have worked very, very hard and had tremendously good and brave communicators working within communities, and we had actually thought that this belief had been overcome. But with massive unrest in Beni, it seems that the groups that attacked our bases took the opportunity to attack them at that time.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand why there would be such a theory about the World Health Organization, that you were there somehow to profit rather than to help?

HARRIS: This is a very complex society and complex area. People here have had suffered conflict and suffered enormously from outsiders for generations, so for 30 years. So people have grown up here only believing that people who come from outside come to do no good. So it does take a lot of effort, a lot of work, a lot of listening to persuade people that truly people who come from outside and who don't look particularly positive to the local people - we do come in Jeeps.

We quite often come with armed protection because there have been many killings and many attacks on health workers. We've seen 300 attacks of all kinds. We are used to having our Jeeps stoned, for instance. But this is the first time we've had an attack on our bases. So they are not trusting of outsiders. And the key to really working here is to build trust.

INSKEEP: It's painful to hear you say that you want to build trust, but because there have been attacks, you bring protection and then your groups seem large and intimidating. So I have to ask now that you've had to withdraw World Health Organization people from that region, what are the implications for the fight against Ebola?

HARRIS: We will continue. We are working out how we can continue to stop Ebola. We cannot just walk away, and we have not just walked away. We have removed people who can continue to work safely to safe locations. But we have actually got staff still in those areas, still in Mangina. I am so overwhelmed and impressed by the people who have stayed, including the field coordinator there - a young woman who's just dedicated her life to health and has stayed there to make sure that all her staff are protected.

INSKEEP: Dr. Margaret Harris of the World Health Organization, thanks so much.

HARRIS: It's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.