The response to the Ebola crisis in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is crippled by a huge lack of community trust. When armed groups have been fighting each other in the region for years, and the government plays a minimal role, people are suspicious of outsiders telling them they must change their ways if the disease is to be fought.
Faith leaders met in Goma (September 11 - 12) to discuss the immense challenge that the Ebola epidemic represents for the Congolese people and the international community. They also met in Bunia and Bukavu, as well as Butembo, the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak.
The Goma meeting acknowledged the important reach that religious leaders have, accessing areas that government or international NGOs are not able to reach. The Catholic Church represents about half the people in the affected region. Trusted by local communities, the Church can persuade them not to hide suspected victims, to respect the instructions of the Ebola response teams, and to accept the vaccines that have been developed.
The Catholic Bishop of Goma, Willy Ngumbi, who led the Goma meeting, said: "We are jubilant at the marvels of medical science in finding a vaccine to cure this deadly disease, but a cure brings no hope if fearful people have no trust in the health teams administering the drug.
"Without such work by the faith communities who have the trust of the local population, hundreds if not thousands more people will die of Ebola, and the disease could spread out of control."
At the meetings, faith leaders expressed their concerns that past lessons from the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and Liberia had not been learnt - which is to involve faith and traditional leaders from the very outset, as the best way to build and reinforce trust.
"Here in DRC these lessons from the past are just starting to be realised. The Church was left on the sidelines at the start of the Ebola outbreak in August last year. We were not consulted right from the start. The result? Response teams have been attacked, even killed, and treatment centres burned down. We can play an essential role as faith leaders, in stemming the spread of this appalling disease," said Bishop Ngumbi.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that as of 9 September 2019, the number of cases has reached more than 3,000, with 2,070 deaths, making the Ebola outbreak in DRC the second worst in history.
Bishop Ngumbi said: "Today, we are encouraging people to suspend normal practices, such as shaking hands during or after services, and to follow the rules of hygiene.
"Hand-washing kits have been placed at the entrance of each church, and the campaign against Ebola is promoted through prayers and hymns. But we could have done so much more early on. The delay in involving us in the response has cost lives."
Apart from keeping up the momentum when it comes to changing traditional behaviours, faith leaders play a crucial role in tackling the stigma and discrimination that often confronts Ebola survivors returning to their communities. Yet obtaining funding for this essential work is a struggle.
"We are supported by Church charities, including UK aid agency CAFOD, which has allowed us to do important community engagement work, said Bishop Ngumbi, "but much of the funding for the campaign against Ebola is being channelled mainly through big international aid organisations which are not rooted, as we are, in the local community."
He continued: "We will still be here when this crisis is over, when there will still be much work to do in rebuilding communities devastated by Ebola. National and international bodies need to acknowledge, support and work alongside us."
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