Today we celebrate the end of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where responders have spent months working tirelessly with their communities to halt the spread of a virus that has now killed more than 2,200.
They did this facing not one but two deadly viruses, with COVID-19 cases first reported in the country in March.
The country came tantalisingly close to reaching zero Ebola cases back in June. But days before the northeastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri were declared Ebola-free, a new flare-up broke out in the Equateur province – the country’s eleventh outbreak since 1976.
More than five months later, the disease has finally been brought to a halt. But while we celebrate this important milestone, we cannot afford to be complacent – especially in the shadow of COVID-19 and other threatening diseases such as Cholera. So, what lessons can we carry forward?
Let us rewind to July 2018, when the ninth Ebola outbreak in Equateur province was declared over and the tenth Ebola outbreak had started in North Kivu, 2,000km (1,243 miles) to the west. Many humanitarian agencies were faced with a choice: Move their entire response to North Kivu or keep some people and resources behind in Equateur to prepare for the next potential outbreak there.
But for local Red Cross volunteers, leaving was not an option. As members of the very communities they serve, they are present across the country before, during and after outbreaks. When communities are engaged and trained in epidemic preparedness and response, they become vital contributors to finding and stopping outbreaks, saving lives, restoring services, reducing negative effects, speeding recovery and building resilience.
In response to the latest Ebola flare-up in Mbandaka in June, more than 1,000 DRC Red Cross volunteers were able to take immediate action to prevent the spread of the virus. They did not need to wait for external assistance. They had the training, supplies, procedures and protocols ready to rapidly respond and reduce the humanitarian consequences of the epidemic. The response was well-prepared and therefore faster, better received and adapted to the community’s means and environment.
Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with countless examples of public scepticism, denial and resistance to top-down health messaging. Through our Ebola response, we have learned that messages designed to control and prevent infection must be tailored and delivered to communities by people they know and trust.
Red Cross volunteers in communities across the DRC have worked in partnership with taxi-motorcycle drivers, students, river traders and traditional and faith leaders to help contain the spread of both Ebola and COVID-19. These trusted voices have helped encourage communities to make use of new hand-washing stations and have helped people to accept the safe and dignified burial practices needed to keep people safe from both diseases.
They have shown us that we cannot respond to a health emergency while ignoring other needs.
In a country where three out of four people earn less than $2 a day, restrictions to curb the spread of deadly viruses devastate people’s capacity to earn a living, pay rent, feed their families, and visit health facilities for routine care.
We have learned from the Ebola response in the DRC that a successful strategy for responding to current and future epidemics lies in striking the right balance between working to save lives and sustain livelihoods.
The DRC is at a critical juncture. While the terrible streak of three Ebola outbreaks in as many years may be over, the health risks – including COVID-19 – are ever-present. The DRC has more outbreaks of epidemics than any other country in the world, with millions of people also at risk of measles, cholera, and the plague among others. In the context of fragile health systems, conflict, and dwindling livelihoods, now is not the time to turn our backs.
For our part, The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) will continue to support the DRC Red Cross with Ebola surveillance, prevention and preparedness while helping them apply the skills and lessons we have learned to new and compounding challenges. Because if we do not stop outbreaks everywhere, we will not stop them anywhere.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance