Election Chaos Is Making History’s Second-Largest Ebola Outbreak Worse

Saturday, January 5, 2019
By Paul Martin

The Democratic Republic of Congo government cut the internet. People attacked medical facilities. NGOs relocated their staff.

By Lauren Weber

Citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo, site of an expanding Ebola outbreak, are set to hear the results of their long-delayed presidential election on Sunday. Violence and instability in the lead-up to the Dec. 30 voting has already interrupted efforts to rein in what is the second-largest Ebola outbreak ever.

Now global health leaders are concerned that controversy and chaos in response to the election results could significantly undercut the response to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now calling an “epidemic” that so far has produced 613 cases and claimed 371 lives in the DRC.

The DRC, home to over 80 million people, has never had a peaceful democratic transition of power. President Joseph Kabila had delayed last month’s election to choose his successor for two years. The election commission has put off releasing the voting results until at least Jan. 6. In the meantime, both the ruling party and the opposition forces are claiming victory.

Multiple irregularities undercut the integrity of the vote, the opposition and observers say. The ballots from the northeastern cities of Beni and Butembo, both hot spots of the Ebola outbreak as well as opposition strongholds in the northeastern province of North Kivu, will not even be counted until March ― months after the new president is expected to take office. The threat of Ebola was the reason given for officially delaying the vote there, although the citizens then organized their own vote.

Electoral protests turned violent in Beni, with people burning an Ebola transit center and scattering the patients waiting for test results there on Dec. 27, as well as vandalizing several other health facilities. That violence and other election protests, which focused on Ebola facilities after the government blamed the epidemic for the voting delays, led several non-governmental organizations to temporarily stop operations in the region over the last two weeks. At least six international NGOs that had been offering critical assistance to the World Health Organization and the DRC Ministry of Health ― Mercy Corps, Médecins Sans Frontières, International Medical Corps, Oxfam, MedAir and the International Rescue Committee ― have at least partially pulled their personnel out, according to the IRC’s new field director for Beni, Dalia Al-Awqati. (HuffPost was able to independently verify all but the IMC and MedAir by press time.)

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