4/15/20 – Ebola Isn’t Over Yet, and COVID-19 Preparations Continue.

During this time of uncertainty as we learn to adapt to a new normal way of living, we hope you and your families and friends are safe and reaching out to those that are alone. This is a critical time we are thankful for technology and the ability to communicate with loved ones remotely.

As we prepare for the arrival of COVID-19, Eastern DRC is still dealing with the Ebola epidemic. In March, the last Ebola patient was released from a treatment center and Congolese authorities believed the virus was eradicated after going for several weeks without any new cases.

The world was hopeful the epidemic would be over.

However, just this week, within days of the epidemic being declared finished, two new deaths near Beni led officials to halt plans to announce the successful eradication of the disease. Although the emerging COVID-19 pandemic adds complications, the World Health Organization has worked side by side with DRC health responders for over 18 months and will continue this joint effort until DRC can declare the final end to the second-worst Ebola outbreak. The region experienced over 3,400 confirmed cases and almost 2,300 deaths.

A healthcare worker who volunteered in the Ebola response decontaminates his colleague after he entered the house of woman suspected of dying of Ebola in DRC. Image: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

As the developed world works out how to come out of the physical and economic shut down caused by dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, counties less developed are seeing their first cases, including most African countries. In DRC, 223 cases of out of 235 have occurred in the capital Kinshasa on the western side of the country with the remaining 12 cases spread among the provinces of Eastern DRC. As of April 13th, 20 people have died and 17 have recovered.

As of today, there are no cases of COVID-19 reported near the area around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (although testing is not widespread due to a lack of facilities in the country). DRC locked down the country when the first cases were identified in Kinshasa, and we reached out to the Swiss Embassy in Kinshasa to help evacuate Rosie Ruf, our In-Country Director, who is in a high-risk category for the coronavirus, to Switzerland. With the assistance of the Red Cross, Rosie traveled to Bunia then Goma to Kinshasa to connect with a Swiss Air flight to Zurich.

This is truly the most challenging time we have ever faced in our 33 years in the Congo.

Across DRC, all towns and villages are locked down with all roads closed. With very few roads and airports in the East it is possible to control the movement of people by strategically placing road blocks on the main roads connecting the population centers. OCP staff that were purchasing goods for the Project made it out of Beni by just a few hours before the town was locked down. We were able to get funds transferred from our bank in Beni to a bank in Bunia to pay staff salaries for March and April.

This is truly the most challenging time we have ever faced in our 33 years in the Congo. We have dealt with dictators, civil war, rebel attacks and looting of our base three times, civil instability and most recently working around the Ebola epidemic. What makes this different it is that it is not restricted to a country or region, but it affects the entire world. Everyone is facing the same problem, and with a global recession on the horizon, access to funds for conservation will be harder to acquire.

Of the utmost importance, is that ICCN rangers still patrol the forest (with the support of WCS and KfW) ensuring the monitoring and control of illegal activity. With all roads impassable, we anticipate the bushmeat trade to decline and miners to abandon their sites to go to their home villages. The rangers will continue to collect data on arrests and compare the activity month to month to understand the impacts of these restrictions. We expect okapi to benefit from fewer human disturbances, but only through the monitoring of illegal activities and regular ranger patrols will we know how people will truly respond to the pandemic.

As we monitor the status of COVID-19 in our Province, we are finishing up the new residence for the Assistant Warden at the Station and rebuilding three water sources near Wamba in the Northwest sector which will provide clean water for 5,000 families to help maintain a sanitary environment in their homes. Our first responsibility is to our staff, ICCN rangers and their families, and the okapi clinic will continue to provide health care services. We are trying to procure additional personal protection equipment for the clinic staff as they will on the front lines of the treatment of coronavirus patients when it reaches Epulu.

Providing access to clean, fast-flowing water allows families to conduct proper sanitation and hygiene.

The commitment from our board of directors is to continue funding our staff and support whatever programs they can safely undertake through the end of 2020, tapping into our reserve fund to cover expenses. We are reducing costs where we can, as we expect donations to be down 30% to 50% over the coming year. In October, we will assess the situation and make realistic plans and budgets for 2021. Travel is halted temporarily and we will continue with regular WhatsApp calls with staff in DRC. We have just upgraded our internet connection in Epulu so calls on WhatsApp are more reliable and staff can share videos from our camera traps.

Your support is needed more than ever. If you can, consider supporting our staff, our nurses and our work to help communities and rangers overcome this immense challenge with minimal loss of life. Stay safe and hopefully out of this struggle will come a better relationship between people and nature around the world.

Consider supporting the communities of the Reserve today.

Sincerely,
John Lukas

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3/27/19 – COVID-19 and its Effects on Okapi

I hope this message finds you safe and taking precautions to protect yourself from the COVID-19 outbreak.

If our OCP staff knows anything, it’s how to maneuver our way through a disease outbreak. We recently navigated a similar situation with Ebola, and came out stronger with your support carrying us through.

Ebola handwashing station in Epulu.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses its own, unique challenges that could threaten people’s health, the economy, and social fabric of not just a single territory or region but entire countries. Nevertheless, some lessons can still be drawn from the Ebola experience. Involving locally respected individuals and institutions and communicating in local languages to explain the disease, its prevention, and the response efforts should be central when seeking to contain viruses as contagious and dangerous as Ebola or COVID-19. It’s also critical to ensure universal access to health care, clean water, and sanitation. Government authorities should listen to what communities say are their most urgent healthcare needs, and be responsive. This is the approach OCP has taken since the inception of the Project in 1987.

Our mission is steadfast – protecting the endangered okapi and its home – and we do that by focusing on people. Here is how we are responding to the COVID-19 outbreak:

Our Staff –

We are taking care of our people and are following the recommendations of the World Health Organization.

  • All OCP educators are working remotely, avoiding travel to schools and other villages.
  • Our conservation radio broadcasts are temporarily halted as everyone shares the same microphone.
  • Because we are in the middle of planting season, our agronomists continue distributing seeds and seedlings, but they are dropped on farmers’ doorsteps to avoid physical contact.
  • All our staff remain employed to ensure that OCP programs continue undisruptive as long as possible and they have income for their families.

Our Communities –

  • We have ensured all procedures put in place to contain the Ebola outbreak will remain in place, including handwashing stations, temperature checks, no handshakes and keeping a safe distance between persons.
  • All local markets and schools are closed.
  • All checkpoints through the Reserve are open 24 hours to avoid trucks and travelers requiring overnight stay in the Reserve.
  • The government of DRC has closed its borders, and air travel is banned within the country.

Our Supporters –

We are all in this together. We are open and honest and want to keep you informed. You have seen us through rebel attacks, insecurity, loss of staff, and the most recent Ebola outbreak, and we are working closely with Reserve management on how best to navigate these uncertain times. We will continue to keep you informed if anything changes.

Investment from caring people like you is what keeps us going. You trust us to provide our strength in the community in times of need, passion for our mission, and simply doing what is right to ensure the people and wildlife of the Reserve remain supported and protected.

Consider supporting the communities of the Reserve today.

Sincerely,
John Lukas

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3/18/20 – COVID-19 and Ebola Update

As the world feels the effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the eastern DR Congo is recovering from the most recent Ebola epidemic.

According to the International Society of Infectious Diseases, as of March 13, 2020, there have been zero new cases of Ebola for 21 days – a welcome relief after 19 long months of battling the containment of the horrific disease. The next milestone will be when the DRC completes 42 days with no new cases, or two Ebola transmission cycles, and the country can officially be called Ebola-free.

This Ebola epidemic diagnosed 3,310 cases and resulted in 2,261 deaths. Difficulty controlling the outbreak was attributed to high levels of insecurity which hampered the efforts to control the spread of the disease. Community mistrust and confusion around the validity of the outbreak led to multiple violent attacks on treatment centers and healthcare workers. These attacks also discouraged people from seeking treatment for the disease, choosing to stay home and risking the transmission to family members. However, unlike the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014-2016, two vaccines were developed during this period and were distributed to over 250,000 people by the end of 2019, which eventually helped slow the spread of Ebola.

Though not without significant challenges, the combined efforts of healthcare workers, experts and community members following recommended protocols, the country gained control over the disease. But while our dedicated team regroups as the Ebola epidemic wanes, we begin preparations for COVID-19. Though only four cases have of COVID-19 have been identified in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC on the western side of the country, many of our Ebola protocols continue in our region on the eastern side of the country. Handwashing stations remain in place, social distancing and avoidance of handshakes are enforced. Our team has now reduced travel around the Reserve only for immediate and urgent needs. The threat of COVID-19 is low in Eastern DRC, but our knowledge and experience in the reduction of disease transmission is assisting us in addressing the problem before it becomes a serious threat.

We want to acknowledge the dedicated healthcare staff in the region risking their lives to prevent and treat diseases. The health, safety and wellbeing of our staff, ICCN rangers and the communities around the Reserve remain our top priority, and we stand ready to assist them in the event COVID-19 spreads to our region.

OCP leadership and healthcare staff at the opening of the new wing of the Okapi Dispensary in 2019.