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I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for its comprehensive nature. I would like to start by joining him in commending all those who are working to fight this outbreak, honouring Dr Richard Kiboung, who was killed last month, and expressing our deepest sympathies to all those who have lost their lives to the latest Ebola outbreak in the DRC.
The death toll currently exceeds 1,000 people, and as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, this deadly and cruel virus is certain to claim more lives in the days and weeks to come. The World Health Organisation has said it is unlikely that the virus will be contained, so its spread into neighbouring countries is not only possible but likely. This assessment from the WHO means that the world must act fast to prevent catastrophic outcomes, given the speed with which Ebola can contaminate and kill. David Miliband, who recently visited the region, confirmed that
“the Ebola outbreak is getting worse, not better, despite a proven vaccine and treatment.”
Through the Department for International Development, the UK is already playing its role in the response and making a difference on the ground, as it has done in previous outbreaks. Real credit is due to DFID’s staff and all responders for their tireless work and commitment. I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is discussing further action that DFID can take with other donor countries. Every day is crucial, and getting the response right is imperative. It is not simply a matter of issuing more money or resources. Given the complex security context laid out by the Secretary of State, a more hands-on and strategic approach is urgently needed.
It has been widely reported that one of the major barriers to delivering the necessary response is the breakdown of trust between the affected community and those trying to lead the response. A quarter of people in the region believe that the Ebola virus does not exist, and a third think that it was fabricated for financial gain. Foreigners have been accused of bringing Ebola to the DRC, and armed groups have stormed health centres and killed staff members.
Medical humanitarian agencies, such as Médecins sans Frontières, that have the expertise and experience to fight Ebola are being forced to suspend activities in the face of threats of further violent attacks. As a result, people are left untreated, vaccines are not administered, and the majority of Ebola-related deaths are now occurring within the community rather than health clinics. Lack of infection control and safe burials only speeds up the spread of the virus. In April, the country recorded its highest number of cases since the outbreak began, and we can expect this month’s caseload to be higher. Transmission is occurring in highly populated areas where health systems are weak and hundreds of armed groups operate.
What specific steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that all agencies prioritise working with the Congolese community in their response? What urgent steps is he taking to gain the trust of the Congolese community? Can he tell us more about his discussions on supporting efforts to stop the current rumour mill of misinformation and secure negotiated access to the affected population?
What more can the Secretary of State do to reduce the problematic dependence on armed escorts and military involvement in the implementation of humanitarian activities? Agencies active on the ground report a major difficulty being that actors involved in the Ebola response are the very same actors who have played a long-standing role in the ongoing conflict in the region. Can he give an assurance that he will uphold the principles laid out in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidelines, which state that military and civil defence assets should only ever be employed by humanitarian agencies as a last resort? Crucially, while we want to see everything done to get this emergency situation under control, does he agree that prevention is better than emergency response and that we must provide long-term support to ensure that the DRC can build appropriate public health systems for the future?