Together We Stopped Ebola in the East; Together We Can Advance a Better Future for the DRC

By U.S. Ambassador to the DRC Mike Hammer, Twitter: @USAmbDRC

It is a new day in eastern Congo. For nearly two years, the Ebola virus devastated families, paralyzed communities, and intensified fears in an already troubled region. It brought out the best from so many – health care workers risking their lives for others, responsible political and religious leaders educating their communities, and countless anonymous mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters working to keep their families healthy and safe. They prevailed over those corrupt forces who sought to profit from others’ suffering or promoted violence for their own sick gain. We will not forget the 2,287 Congolese lives lost in the outbreak in the east, nor will we abandon the nearly 1,200 who can tell their incredible survival stories. But the DRC’s 10th Ebola outbreak, in eastern Congo, is no more; and for that, today we celebrate.

I would like to recognize the heroic contributions of Congolese and international health professionals, NGOs, and the Americans who risked their lives to defeat Ebola. I traveled regularly to the affected areas – Butembo, Katwa, Beni, Bunia, and Goma – and witnessed their courage first hand. Women and men who worked to protect and save lives, even, in some cases, under the threat of violence from cowardly forces who aimed to profit from tragedy.

Thanks to the leadership of DRC President Tshisekedi, who directed the world’s foremost Ebola expert, Dr. JJ Muyembe, to manage the response, we defeated the outbreak. The partnership between the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the DRC National Institute for Biomedical Research (INRB) produced two effective treatments, and I met some of the survivors who directly benefited from them. We hope to supply these vital therapeutics to Mbandaka, and as we have in the past, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will continue to fight side-by-side with our friends from the Congolese Ministry of Health under the direction of Minister Eteni Longondo to stop the DRC’s 11th Ebola outbreak.

The United States was the DRC’s principal partner in ending its 10th Ebola outbreak, contributing nearly $600 million to the response. Within days of the recognition of the first case in North Kivu we deployed experts from the CDC and USAID to the region. Within weeks, a full U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) was on the ground collaborating with the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, and other local and international actors to contain the outbreak. We supported clinical management of positive cases, strengthened infection prevention and control measures, advised on case investigations and contact tracing, and facilitated significant community engagement and education campaigns. USAID and the Mérieux Foundation funded a mobile testing lab in Goma that can locally test blood samples for Ebola and other communicable diseases.

Our contributions to the Ebola response were a natural expansion of our longstanding support for the Congolese health systems. The United States has provided nearly $1.6 billion in health assistance to the DRC over the past 20 years. CDC trained more than 300 Congolese field epidemiologists, “disease detectives” who are able to respond to COVID-19 and other outbreaks. More than one-third of the Congolese population is covered by USAID programs in maternal and child health, nutrition, malaria and TB interventions reaching communities most at risk and in hard to reach areas. We helped the DRC develop its Mashako Plan for routine immunization strengthening – which aims to mitigate the impact of the ongoing outbreaks of polio and measles. Since 2003, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has invested in HIV prevention, detection, treatment and care and currently supports antiretroviral treatment for over 130,000 people living with HIV in the DRC.  Recently, the DRC was designated as a U.S. Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) intensive support country, which will provide further opportunities for us – together – to build up the DRC’s longer-term preparedness capacity amidst the varied health-security threats the DRC faces.

As the Ebola response in the east turns to supporting survivors, we unfortunately also turn our attention to a new Ebola outbreak in Mbandaka and continue to deal with the realities of the Coronavirus pandemic. The United States has announced nearly $30 million for the DRC to provide health- and education-related support to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Like Ebola, COVID-19 does not respect borders, politics, or nationality. Only together will we defeat it, and we must continue to take appropriate measures to protect ourselves and others. I salute leaders and activists from across the Congolese political spectrum including First Lady Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi, Jeanine Mabunda, Martin Fayulu, Moise Katumbi, LUCHA, Rien Sans les Femmes, Cardinal Ambongo and other religious figures who, from the start, called for respect for proper mitigation practices like frequent hand washing, wearing face masks, social distancing, and staying home when ill. These measures are more important now than ever; we must remain vigilant. More American assistance is coming, and we will be there for the Congolese people.

The courage and determination we saw against Ebola in a dangerous security environment inspires us and demonstrates that now, together, we can fight two other invisible enemies, a new Ebola outbreak and COVID-19. As U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Alex Azar said during his visit to the DRC, the United States was here before the first case of Ebola and will be here long after the last case. The United States will fight together with you against all enemies – that is what friends are for!

We are under no illusions; despite this significant victory, many challenges remain for Congolese – countering other diseases, combatting corruption, ending impunity, and eliminating ruthless armed groups in the east, like the ADF. It would be easy to be pessimistic about the DRC’s future. But I am not. The United States is not. We see change happening in the DRC, and though the road will be long and arduous, we believe that together we can strengthen DRC’s democracy, create economic opportunities, and promote good health and security. This is the mission of our U.S.-DRC Privileged Partnership for Peace and Prosperity.