Via New Republic, Laurie Garrett writes: Ebola Cordon Sanitaire: When It Worked in Congo in 1995. Excerpt from a fascinating article:
Three impoverished, tiny West African nations are in a collective state of siege, their people surrounded by a microbial enemy, the Ebola virus. In response to months of inaction, followed by ineffective measures, the governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have escalated their counterattack on the virus, imposing cordons sanitaires aimed at isolating entire regions of their countries in hopes of containing the enemy. It may slow the virus’ spread, but it will not be sufficient to stop Ebola or lift the state of siege.
In recent days I have heard many media accounts of these governments’ deployment of military personnel to cordon off the hardest-hit parts of their countries—accounts framing these actions as unprecedented in humanity’s battles with Ebola, possibly inhumane or overly severe. These accounts are inaccurate.
I was in the Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1995. As I described in Betrayal of Trust, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who also ruled the nation with an iron hand during the first known Ebola outbreak in 1976, wasted no time once the virus’ presence was confirmed in foreign laboratories. All plane flights to the beleaguered, sprawling town of some half million souls—Kikwit—and its sole highway were shut down by the military.
Bordered on all but one side by a vast rain forest, Kikwit was a sprawling mess of a place that despite its population size lacked electricity, running water, sewers, any form of news services, phones, or an airport. Villagers had over decades settled in Kikwit, but continued to live as they had in rural areas, with the exception of trade—the whole point of moving to the messy metropolis was to sell goods extracted from the rain forest to truckers that would haul valuables to the nation’s distant capital, Kinshasa.
Mobutu’s 1995 cordons sanitaires was brutally successful, as all trade to the Kikwit region ground to a halt, the desperately poor people were fully isolated to war with Ebola on their own, and few outsiders were able to find ancient military aircraft willing to fly to the town, landing on its “runway,” a weedy soccer field.
When a group of war weary journalists fresh from the killing fields in Rwanda collectively booked a plane, spending a day in Kikwit, the military placed all of them under arrest upon return to Kinshasa. Though they were eventually released, one of the reporters fled across the Congo River to neighboring Congo Brazzaville. If Ebola had escaped Kikwit, its most likely carriers would have been journalists—including myself.
Inside Kikwit, the World Health Organization and Zaire medical teams erected further cordons sanitaires, isolating burial and treatment zones from the general population. And fantastically heroic local Red Cross volunteers, protected by little more than big cumbersome rubber gloves and boots, plastic aprons and overly-reused face masks, gathered up the sick and dead, hauling them behind the yellow taping denoting the cordoned zones.