Ebola to coronavirus: From one emergency to another

What happens to other disease responses when the world’s public health officials are all focused on COVID-19?

Imran Khan blog - coronavirus Ebola
WHO's Dr Marie-Rosaline Belizaire checks the health status of a woman in North Kivu, DRC [Photo courtesy of WHO/Junior D Kannah]

From NHS workers in the United Kingdom to NGO workers in the Central African Republic (CAR), front line health staff across the globe are over-worked and trying to contain the COVID-19 pandemic as best they can.

At the centre of the global response is the World Health Organization (WHO) that is providing coordination and response, as well as data analysis, to help governments.

But what happens when the world’s public health officials are all focused on COVID-19? There are still other emergencies out there that need to be contained.

Dr Marie-Rosaline Belizaire is an epidemiologist from Haiti. She was on the front lines in the battle against the continuing Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Often, her day-to-day work would put her in some of the most dangerous parts of the DRC.

“I was in the DRC since May 2018, and then, a month ago, I switched to COVID-19 response and moved to the Central African Republic,” she said, speaking on the phone to Al Jazeera from the capital, Bangui.

Dr Belizaire is one of the thousands of public health workers who have switched roles and in her case, countries, to deal with COVID-19.

Initially, she was happy to move to CAR to deal with this new crisis.

“It felt good and I was comfortable to help the CAR build its responses, and in the DRC I felt we have a great local team there and the work is ongoing against Ebola with the same quality of response,” she said.

But it is important that the response to other crises does not suffer as a result of health workers switching to the fight to contain COVID-19.

In the past, outbreaks of Ebola have almost decimated countries. In 2014, during the West Africa Ebola epidemic, for example, Liberia was brought to the brink by mob violence, financial ruin and thousands dying from the disease. The fear from many public health officials is that they will lose ground to other communicable diseases.

Dr Belizaire concurs: “So far my concern is that we need more material, the financial support is low, and that our focus on COVID-19 will mean others will die of diseases like diarrhoea, malaria etc.”

On the flip side, dealing with one crisis has meant that people like Dr Belizaire are equipped to handle another crisis like the coronavirus.

Responses to Ebola, cholera, and malaria also mean that local people are now far more educated about the risks and prevention strategies than they were even a decade ago.

But the threat still remains.

In countries like CAR and DRC, there is a very complex security environment, which can affect the health response.

In DRC, Ebola transmission, for example, is a very real possibility outside of the groups that are under surveillance. The virus can persist in used needles, syringes or vials for several weeks; it can remain in the body fluids of survivors for many months, and can be transmitted well after recovery; or in rare cases, it can result in relapse. Ebola is also naturally present in an animal reservoir in the region, which means there is always the risk of a new spillover to humans.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that the world is nowhere near as prepared as it should be to deal with a global health crisis. And with the focus on this pandemic, there is a very real possibility that DRC and central Africa could see a repeat of the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak that almost decimated West Africa.

Source: Al Jazeera