Congolese Health Ministry officials carry the first batch of experimental Ebola vaccines in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 16, 2018.

© 2018 Kenny Katombe/Reuters

(Kinshasa) – The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo should ensure human rights protections in controlling the recent Ebola outbreak, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a question-and-answer document about the response to the virus. Since 1976, more than 800 people have died in Congo during eight previous Ebola outbreaks.

The government and international partners should take effective steps to contain the Ebola virus, protect people at high risk of infection, and ensure treatment for those affected.

“Protecting human rights is key to responding to the Ebola outbreak,” said Diederik Lohman, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Limits on freedom of movement and other measures restricting basic rights should be lawful, necessary and proportionate.”

The Congolese government should limit the use of quarantines, make protection of health workers and women a priority, and ensure effective oversight and monitoring, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international human rights law, quarantines should be imposed only in accordance with the law, should be demonstrated to be necessary to contain the virus, and be the least intrusive possible. Human Rights Watch noted that quarantines imposed during the 2014-2016 epidemic in West Africa did not always meet these standards, as they were often not based on scientific evidence, were applied arbitrarily, and were overly broad in their application.

The response of the government and its international partners should be based on social mobilization focused on expanding knowledge of Ebola and voluntary limitations on movement, combined with social support for the people affected, Human Rights Watch said.

Health workers in Congo are most likely at increased risk of Ebola infection, as the healthcare system is under-resourced and health workers are often underpaid if paid at all. During the earlier West Africa epidemic, numerous health workers died of the disease, impeding efforts to contain it.

Fear of Ebola also resulted in multiple attacks on health workers in West Africa. The government and its international partners should ensure that local health workers are adequately equipped and protected against Ebola as well as potential physical attacks.

Because of traditional roles as caregivers, birth attendants, and health workers, women are also likely to be at increased risk of Ebola in Congo, as they were in the West Africa epidemic. Specific steps should be taken to address these particular vulnerabilities, including through inclusion of women in developing the response.

International partners should take steps to monitor the response. In recent years, the Congolese government has brutally repressed dissent and curtailed basic civil and political rights. Security forces have killed more than 300 people during largely peaceful protests since 2015 and arrested hundreds of others, while the government has cracked down on media and nongovernmental groups.