In a span of 6 months the DRC has suffered two deadly Ebola outbreaks. The first one taking place in the western province of Equateur, near the town of Mabandaka. The second outbreak is happening right now in the war-torn eastern province of Kivu-Nord. According to WHO, as of October 26th, 168 people had died from this outbreak alone. This is the tenth time since independence that the DRC is experiencing an outbreak. In this blog post I want to break down briefly what Ebola is, why the DRC is so susceptible to it, and how digital tools can help to counter and ultimately prevent it.
First discovered in 1976, researchers believe the virus to be stemming from different species of fruit bats. These species of fruit bats display no symptoms of the disease despite carrying the virus, suggesting they are the natural carriers of the virus. However, the research thus far cannot exclude that there may also be other natural carriers of the virus.
The first village documented to experience an outbreak was Yambuku in north-western DR Congo but the virus got its name from the nearby Congolese river Ebola. Ebola quickly became well known due to the high fatality rate (50-90%) that struck its victims. Humans and animals can contract the virus by coming into contact with the blood and/or bodily fluids of someone affected. Highly contagious, the virus flourishes in an environment where hygienic practices are relatively modest. Furthermore, certain symptoms such as fever, dizziness, and diarrhea are all regular symptoms of Malaria, which, of course, is much more common. The confusion and inaccurate diagnoses that follow at the beginning of every new outbreak contribute to the spread of Ebola between victims.
Moreover, the ongoing conflicts in the countryside prevent health centers from being set up and farmers from cultivating the land. Another factor in the equation are the migration patterns of the population. Not only do people travel long distances to sell their produce in public markets but the DRC also has a high number of refugees leaving as well as entering its territory on a daily basis making the disease more difficult to monitor and contain. Together with cultural phenomena such as certain traditional practices at funerals and close-knit rural communities where physical contact is an important element, these factors have all contributed to the difficulties of containing the virus.
Today’s Ebola outbreak and digitalism can be viewed in light of Kleine’s article from 2010 on ICT4D and the capability approach to development in which the author talks about Amartya Sen’s famous mantra of ‘individual freedom’. To rid oneself of poverty is not only measured in pure economic terms but rather in terms of individual freedoms. What options are available to you? What opportunities are out there and what choices can you make? If you have access to a smart phone or a computer perhaps you have learnt to recognize the symptoms of Ebola, perhaps you have learnt about proper hygienic practices and can prevent an outbreak in the first place? This outlook represents a more modern, comprehensive understanding of the challenges related to extreme poverty. It is not grounded in a capitalist, finite understanding of poverty as reaching a certain economic benchmark and thus also leaves more room for adjustments.
To illustrate how digital media can be used to counter Ebola I naturally ended up on YouTube. I quickly realized there are numerous information campaigns out there to improve Ebola awareness but this is one of the better ones created by the Global Health Media Project in conjunction with the outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014.
What do you think? How can ICT4D can be used to counter future Ebola outbreaks?
“ICT4WHAT? – Using the choice framework to operationalize the capability approach to development”, Journal of International Development, Dorothea Kleine, ICT4D Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK (2010)