World

Ebola fears raise concerns in already fraught Congo election

Congolese candidates in an already fraught and deadly election landscape are dealing with the challenges of an Ebola outbreak, the second deadliest in its history.

Country's 2nd-deadliest outbreak comes as violence, repression already threaten to depress turnout

A health official uses a thermometer to screen Felix Tshisekedi, presidential candidate of Congo's Union for Democracy party, on his arrival for an election campaign rally in Beni. (Al-hadji Kudra Maliro/Associated Press)

What's an election campaign without shaking hands with potential voters? Congolese candidates in the thick of an Ebola outbreak, now the second deadliest in Congo history, are finding out in uncomfortable ways.

Jaribu Muliwavyo seeks another term as provincial deputy in North Kivu, the restless centre of the outbreak. He's sad when he arrives in communities and isn't permitted to greet traditional chiefs properly, with a warm clasp of hands.

"They take that as an insult," Muliwavyo told The Associated Press. This election, he mused, is "a real puzzle."

The current Ebola outbreak is like no other, and it promises trouble for Congo's presidential election on Sunday. Unrest by dozens of rebel groups in this Central African nation with 40 million voters already posed a challenge to the long-delayed vote. Then Ebola, a deadly virus spread via contact with infected bodily fluids, emerged in a part of eastern Congo that had never seen it before.

Congolese officials have openly worried about the risks of holding an election in a densely populated, highly mobile border area where health officials are fighting to bring Ebola under control amid rebel attacks. Nearly 550 cases of the virus have been reported so far, with over 300 dead.

"Imagine … voters are in line and terrorists come with guns and shoot everybody. It's a concern," the president of Congo's election commission, Corneille Nangaa, told reporters earlier this month.

In addition, some election workers might hesitate to show up, Nangaa said. "There are so many risks."

Touchscreen voting amid outbreak

To make things yet more complicated, Congo for the first time is using voting machines, a rarity in Africa. The opposition and some observers warn that the technology could be used to manipulate the results. A coalition of armed groups in North Kivu has told the government to stop using the machines or expect violence, and the election commission on Sunday said unidentified people had tried to attack its warehouses in Beni.

A health worker feeds a boy suspected of having the Ebola virus at an Ebola treatment centre in Beni, Eastern Congo on Sept. 9. Turnout is expected to be low in the region bearing the brunt of the latest outbreak. (Al-hadji Kudra Maliro/Associated Press)

Earlier this month, thousands of voting machines were destroyed by arson at a Kinshasa warehouse.

Some living in the Ebola outbreak zone have more immediate concerns, as voters will choose candidates by tapping on a touchscreen.

"The election commission tells us that it will use voting machines that many people will be touching and there is the risk of Ebola spreading," said Muhindo Vangi, 25. He lives in the Beni region, where rebels have killed more than 1,500 people over the past four years.

Between Ebola and the attacks, many people in the community have already fled, he said.

The virus can spread through close contact with a symptomatic person's bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat, vomit, feces, urine, saliva or semen.

Disinfectant at polling stations

No one knows how many voters in region will show up at the polls. Congo's ruling party might not mind; the far east has plenty of opposition sympathizers.

Another Beni resident, Kambale Mathumo, was less worried. People have been attending marches, churches and other gatherings and a single day of voting won't have much of an effect, he said.

And yet. "I call on the election commission to have disinfectants and hand-washing stations, because people will be touching the voting machines," Mathumo said.

Those deep into the Ebola response say they understand.

Never has an election of this magnitude occurred in a large Ebola outbreak, said Dr. Marie-Roseline Darnycka Belizaire, who manages the response in the city of Butembo for the World Health Organization.

"This epidemic is the most challenging we've ever had. And with an election in the middle, you can imagine," she said.

But there has been progress. All political parties have made a declaration about Ebola, recognizing the risks. "Ebola doesn't know politics. Ebola is Ebola, for everyone," Belizaire said. "We have them educating their voters. We have gel in industrial numbers. Hand-washing stations in meetings."

The United Nations peacekeeping mission says it has deployed eight tonnes of disinfectant and hand sanitizer for use in all polling stations in the Ebola outbreak zone, while 3,000 troops with its Force Intervention Brigade are in Beni to "neutralize" the armed groups and protect health workers.

Election day will unfold carefully. Responders are working with authorities to make sure everyone who enters is screened for fever, Belizaire said. "If people after two hours still have a fever, we have to make a decision. If they're OK, they can go back and cast their vote."

Protective gear

Belizaire is among the Ebola workers who have negotiated with rebel groups for access to "red zones" where insecurity is high. It takes patience and trust, along with extraordinary measures.

A security agent makes an assessment every morning on whether it's safe to go out. Escorts can include Congolese security forces or UN peacekeepers. Belizaire has protective gear that she must be able to put on within 30 seconds.

Most important, and most frustrating for candidates in the campaign's final days, there is a no-touch policy which means keeping about two metres away.

Some residents, long traumatized by attacks and wary of outsiders, including those trying to contain the Ebola outbreak, haven't much welcomed visiting candidates anyway.

When the presidential candidate with Congo's most prominent opposition party, Felix Tshisekedi, arrived in Beni earlier this month, people at his rally began to sing insulting songs and sling pebbles, breaking up the event.

Tshsekedi later told AP that if he wins the election he will make sure a military base is installed there to track and neutralize the rebels.

"We came to Beni to sympathize with the people who have been victims of massacres and Ebola," he said. "We ask them to trust us."

The long-delayed election is meant to choose a successor for President Joseph Kabila, due to step down after 18 years in power. If successful, it would lead to Congo's first democratic transfer of power. But there are concerns over whether it will be a fair and free election.

Several people have died in protests as Kabila has clung to power since a 2016 deadline to hold an election passed. There are also fears among opponents that Kabila could continue to rule in the near future through his preferred candidate — Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary — and he has not ruled out running for president himself again in 2023.

On Wednesday, the governor of Kinshasa ordered a halt to campaigning in the city ahead of Sunday's vote for security reasons, a move opposition supporters said was an attempt to meddle in the race.

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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