This note provides an overview of a selection of key messages related to the Ebola outbreak and response that were circulating on WhatsApp and in the local media in the Grand Nord (Beni and Lubero territories), DRC, in November and December 2018. The note was prepared by Rachel Sweet (Harvard University) with support from Juliet Bedford (Anthrologica). Rachel Sweet is a leading expert on North Kivu and is collaborating with the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform to support the response.
In comparing this collection of messages with those from 1-17 September 2018 (see previous SSHAP brief), several shifts in the content of local-level discussions around Ebola are evident. The initial round of messages demonstrated significant politicisation of Ebola, describing it as the latest ‘weapon of war’ to be used against the population of Beni and casting doubts on the cause of the disease. Reports persist of different actors on the ground spreading misinformation and politicising Ebola. However, although narratives and fears around Ebola remain, the growing visibility of survivors and the important role of local media sources (primarily radio) in disseminating information appear to be reframing components of the prior discussion. The growing divergence between mainstream media narratives, which treat Ebola as a serious medical issue, and the opposing portrayals, which paint Ebola as a political tool, suggests that positive messaging may be helping to build community trust and overcome resistance. Despite this cautious optimism, ongoing violence still has the potential to provoke popular unrest that may disrupt the response and shift narratives of Ebola back towards political concerns. The following points are notable:
- Mainstream media coverage of Ebola: In the previous round of messages, a number of prominent local media outlets were involved in promoting politicised narratives of Ebola. Now, however, outlets (e.g., Beni Lubero Online) that published the ‘Ebola as a weapon of war’ arguments are no longer disseminating this view. Another outlet for local journalists (jambomag.com), which had linked Ebola to a potential security threat from national or international interests, appears no longer to be operational, for reasons that remain unclear. In the December round of messages, radio stations and local media directly address and discredit views that either discount the danger of Ebola, promote the distrust of response teams, and/or dissuade populations from seeking treatment.
- Message content: As overt messages on the political motives of Ebola appear to have subsided, a larger proportion of message content focuses on the medical treatment of Ebola patients. Concerns appear less oriented towards whether the government or international community is using Ebola as a tool of repression, and more towards what happens at treatment facilities. Two points are raised consistently. The first issue is the fear of misdiagnosis: community members are concerned that individuals with symptoms similar to Ebola (e.g. malaria) will be ‘automatically treated’ as if they had Ebola; the focus of communication from both local radio and local administrative authorities is on directly addressing this concern. The second issue is the fear of stigma associated with Ebola for patients once they are released from ETCs and reintegrated into the community.
- Ituri: There are reports that some members of the population in Ituri Province regard the Nande (the demographic majority in the Grand Nord) as responsible for ‘bringing Ebola’ to the area. Tensions with the Nande have a long-standing economic dimension, in which the Nande (who are not originally from Ituri) have held disproportionate control over trade routes, sometimes to the perceived detriment of local populations. In the past, this has contributed to inter-ethnic violence. The potential for Ebola to be appropriated in the escalation of ethnic tensions should be taken into consideration by the response.
- Ebola and elections: Overall, it appears that Ebola is less frequently linked to the political aspects of the upcoming elections than the earlier politicisation had indicated. Political heavyweights from the Grand Nord, including the RCD/K-ML leader Mbusa Nyamwisi, his national deputy Kiro Tsongo Gregoire, and FARDC General Bwambale Kakolele, are visiting the area and/or making political statements in advance of elections. All messages are circulating via WhatsApp (see below). Only Mbusa and Tsongo have explicitly mentioned the Ebola response, and both discussed it in relatively positive terms. Nonetheless, some members of the population believe that Ebola is a means to prevent them from voting. Given the high level of displacement around Beni, it is possible that communities will lack access to their assigned voting stations, and this could spur protests and potentially fuel support for armed actors. In his statements, Tonso has problematised the Ebola response as creating potential difficulties for voters to attend polling stations. Within the Grand Nord and across the country, the need for security ahead of the elections (including an effective response to Ebola) is consistently emphasised. The widely-regarded Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO) highlighted the need to control Ebola in order to have credible elections.
- The role of local actors: Local radio stations, a communication channel with the widest reach, have started ‘Ebola broadcasts’ to dispel misinformation about Ebola. These broadcasts often include interviews with Ebola survivors who present a positive view of Ebola response teams. Youth associations are also hosting public forums on Ebola that are able to convene large crowds. Their support for, or conversely their skepticism of, response teams can be highly influential at the community level, both in the Grand Nord and throughout DRC. There is a persistent but significant subset of the population that remains opposed to Ebola responders (to varying degrees). Continuing and scaling support for local actors who are the most likely to favourably realign the perceptions of this group is critical.