The Next Pandemic
Photographer: Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, text: Amelia Goldsmith
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center
Deforestation and the unbridled exploitation of natural resources in the massively biodiverse Democratic Republic of Congo could leave humanity further exposed to the next super virus. While the world’s attention is fixed on Covid-19, conservationists in the DRC are calling for greater environmental protection not just for conservation’s sake, but in order to minimize future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, which abound in rich ecosystems like the Congo. Scientists believe that mammals alone are estimated to host at least 320,000 undiscovered viruses, according to a 2013 paper by the American Society for Microbiology. The Congo’s biodiversity has already served as the launchpad for deadly novel viruses such as HIV and Ebola, both of which — like SARS, West Nile and Covid-19 — are zoonotic in origin.
“The fact [is] that the health of the environment and the development and expansion of these terrible diseases are profoundly interlinked,” says Emmanuel de Merode, Director of Virunga National Park, in the country’s east. “Every Ebola epidemic since the original one recorded in the mid-1970s found its origins in an area of massive deforestation.” De Merode notes that the 2018-2020 epidemic, which claimed over 2,000 lives, failed to spread east through the National Park. “What's also significant about that epidemic is that whilst its origins were tied to forest destruction, the fact that it was successfully contained is tied to, as it were, a natural firewall that was created by a healthy ecosystem that buffered the expansion of that disease,” he adds. “And that, of course, it was the National Park that prevented this terrible Ebola epidemic from spreading east, into eastern Africa and into major cities such as Goma.”
Policy initiatives to strengthen conservation efforts face an uphill battle in the region, which is riddled with complex historical, social and political issues, in a nation still grappling with the wounds inflicted by Belgium’s brutal colonial rule, during which an estimated 10 million Congolese are thought to have died. The DRC remains one of the most disenfranchised and impoverished areas of the world. Almost three-quarters of the population scrape by on less than $1.90 per day. Faced with such economic prospects, many communities rely on bushmeat, which is believed to have provided the zoonotic bridge for Ebola. Power vacuums and conflict, especially in the restive eastern provinces like North and South Kivu and Ituri, make it hard to keep tabs on unregulated mining and logging, which destroy natural habitats.
“Deforestation is an issue that touches on a whole number of problems in this region,” De Merode continues. “Of course it's an environmental concern, the destruction of National Parks, the habitats for critical species like mountain gorillas and chimpanzees and so on.” “But it also has a very human dimension, in that there is an incredible dependency on that forest, particularly for fuelwood and charcoal.”
Militias make money from illegally logging protected forest areas, which allows them to expand and thus perpetuate suffering in the region, he adds. Poaching and the trafficking of exotic animals are also both rife in this rich ecosystem, home to rare gorillas and pangolins — suspected to be a secondary host for Covid-19 before it spilled over into the human population. These issues are compounded by a weak healthcare system that leaves local communities neglected and exposed.
“This time the devil will not distract us again,” says Yvette Adaniya, of Beni, North Kivu. “We were like fools, and we did not listen.” Yvette is a survivor of the North Kivu Ebola outbreak, which lasted from 2018-2020. It is likely to have emerged from spillover events around the town of Mangina, to the south of the Ituri rainforest. The outbreak spread panic and terror. “I felt fever and heat inside me, I got it from my husband who died of Ebola in the hospital,” she adds. When asked whether health workers informed them about the disease, Yvette responds: “They would tell us, but this disease was like a demon, we did not listen to the information, we thought it was politics, not a disease.” With this new outbreak, conspiracy theories spread rapidly. Some believed the disease to be a hoax for international actors to benefit from aid money — a surreal precursor to reactions seen in sections of Western society during the spread of Covid-19. Others, like Yvette, were told that members of certain groups were being killed in the health centers.
Tensions after this outbreak in North Kivu led to dozens of armed attacks against Ebola response workers as well as the murder of epidemiologist Richard Mouzoko. With death rates from preventable diseases like measles and rotavirus already high in this region of the world, experts found it difficult to explain to people why death from Ebola was of particular concern. On the front lines of this virus were some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Rachel Rukwati was a nurse during the Kivu Ebola response. “We sense there are some things we lost,” she says. “The main fear I had as a nurse was that I could get contaminated. When I went to treatment zones I had fear.” Offering her thoughts on how to react to a rapidly spreading new disease such as Covid-19, she says: “I would tell them that when they notice the virus in their town, they should first accept it like a disease not like politics, they will not be able to fight it like that.”
Covid-19 still has much of the world on its knees while experts race to roll out a vaccine. It served to alert the general public to the threat posed by viruses to global security and economic well-being. Despite this, much needs to be done about research into evasive measures and public health strategies for containing a novel virus. The rapid spread of Covid-19 can be attributed to the globalized nature of our world. The forces that enabled the contemporary environment in DRC, failing its citizens, are the same that produce the especially high risk for extensive community transmission of any novel disease.
While the modern world often speaks of colonization as deep moral failing of the past, ramifications in the shape of failed health systems still affect the lives of billions of people in the global south, and, in the case of the DRC, have grave implications for the potential of a deadly virus to spread in a setting with limited resources. It’s not a matter of whether a new virus would emerge from Congo’s highly biodiverse natural habitat, but when.