There is not much happening at Petite Barrière the busiest border crossing between Rwanda and its large neighbour DR Congo.
Before the current outbreak of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF), every day more than 50,000 people have been using this border and its sister crossing point a short distance away.
That figure is down to about 20,000, according to unofficial information obtained by The Chronicles.
This past week, Congo declared its 10th outbreak in 40 years. The World Health Organisation, describing the outbreak as ‘deadliest ever’, has also declared it as a global health emergency – meaning millions of dollars in resources will be availed.
During the first eight months of the epidemic, until March 2019, more than 1,000 cases of Ebola were reported in the north eastern region neighboring Uganda. However, between April and June 2019, this number has doubled, with a further 1,000 new cases reported in just these three months.
Since early June, the number of new cases notified per week has remained high, averaging between 75 and 100 each week. The outbreak has quickly reached areas directly bordering Rwanda.
The past three days have been marked by allegation from Uganda that a woman who died there of the virus did pass through Rwanda, and a counter dismissal from Rwanda that no such person ever crossed here. The WHO confirmed Rwanda’s version.
Is Rwanda safe?
Rwanda shares a 217km border with Congo. There are two major crossing areas Rubavu/Goma and Rusizi/Bukavu.
Between Rubavu and Goma, there are two crossing points separating the two cities: the Corniche (Grande Barrière) and the Poids Lourds (Petite Barrière) border posts. The Poids Lourds border post is the most used by small-scale cross border traders.
Two border posts separate Bukavu and Rusizi: Rusizi I and Rusizi II. While the two border crossings are close to the centre of Bukavu, only Rusizi I is close to the centre of the city of Rusizi.
This explains why most of the small-scale cross border trade occurs at Rusizi I, while most heavy vehicles use the Rusizi II crossing.
These four crossing points are said to carry at least 90% of the traffic between the two countries. It means, there are small points far away from urban and trading centers – in addition to the daily interactions between far rural border communities.
Our reporter spent a day at the Rubavu-Goma section to gauge preparedness, since the ebola virus is in Goma, a few minutes drive.
Many people in Gisenyi said they are afraid of travelling to Goma. However, in equal measure others said they can’t just stop business like that due to Ebola.
“Actually, there is a directive requiring people going to Goma to pass through Grande Bariere boarder. Petite Bariere seems not be utilized,” said our reporter on the scene.
There is “serious screening”, added the reporter, with many medical officers deployed there at both entry points.
Entry and exit screening is active at all airports, with particular focus to Kamembe airport in Rusizi district – used mainly by Congolese travelers.
WHO has stated that the current outbreak is a high risk for Rwanda, and advised the country to strengthen surveillance. WHO’s preparedness expert assessment concluded that Rwanda has increased awareness and community engagement throughout the country using different communication channels like; television, Radio, billboards in public places such as main Roads, borders and Airports as well as interpersonal communication in Health Facilities, hotels, and in public gatherings is ongoing.
The Head of Division Epidemiology and surveillance Response Dr José Nyamusore says Ebola case management trainings for medical staff at health facilities, security organs, the Red-Cross volunteers, Community Health Workers are in place and that Ebola screening is ongoing at all border posts to Rwanda including the high risk zones.
To supplement the physical efforts, the government of Rwanda set aside Rwf11.5 billion as it steps up efforts to protect the country against Ebola.
High risk districts
Rwanda has already implemented two Ebola Virus Disease preparedness phases and is currently embarking on the third, in response to WHO’s proclamation this week.
On April 15, the Rwanda Ministry of Health with support from the World Health Organization and other partners launched vaccination of health care and frontline health workers to prevent them against the Ebola Virus in case they have to deal with patients contaminated by the virus.
The districts in high risk zone of ebola targeted for vaccination include Nyarugenge, Gasabo, Kicukiro, Rubavu, Rutsiro, Nyamasheke, Musanze, Nyabihu, Burera, Gicumbi, Nyagatare, Karongi, Bugesera, Nyanza and Rusizi.
At the beginning of this past week, Rwanda’s health ministry issued a travel alert for its citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to eastern DR Congo.
The statement said: “Rwandan residents are advised to avoid unnecessary travels to areas affected by an Ebola outbreak immediately report to the nearest screening station if you are coming from an Ebola-affected area.”
The health ministry says it has trained over 23,000 medical personnel, police officers and volunteers in preparation to fight outbreak. No single case has ever been recorded in Rwanda, according to official records.
Ebola full simulation exercises were conducted in Kanombe Military Hospital, Gihundwe District hospital, Kamembe International Airport (Rusizi district), and Rugerero Ebola treatment Centre to test Rwanda’s preparedness in response to a confirmed case, which will include Emergency Operations Centre activation, testing surveillance, case management and labs.
Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says that overall, the geographic spread of the epidemic appears to be unpredictable, with scattered small clusters potentially occurring anywhere in the region.
This pattern makes ending the outbreak even more challenging.
Between the four official crossing points, more than 90,000 people – mainly informal traders, cross daily. This level of cross-border movement is the biggest in Africa, and only second to the US-Mexico border daily influx globally.
Given the appearance of new confirmed cases across in Goma, it should be serious cause for concern.