“My people are dying” – covering the DRC Ebola outbreak

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The Ebola clinic in a hospital compound in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is a day’s drive from regional capital Goma but near home for Reuters TV cameraman Djaffar Al Katanty.

He grew up in the region now the epicentre of the world’s second worst recorded outbreak of the deadly viral disease. At last count at least 1,477 people died and cases have cropped up in neighbouring Uganda.

“We were seeing people dying day after day. Children taken away to be buried and ambulances arriving with new cases. These are my people dying,” says Katanty.

On this trip he is visiting a frontline clinic in Beni with photographer Baz Ratner and reporter Alessandra Prentice to record the full impact of Ebola and gather data on its spread.

They interview an elderly man who dabs his eyes with a frayed handkerchief as he describes how his granddaughter fell ill then succumbed to the haemorrhagic fever days later.

One of the cruellest features of the Ebola infection is the ease with which the virus spreads through contact. Friends, family and medical staff have learned the drill to minimise that happening. So have Reuters’ reporters.

Nobody shakes hands. Nobody embraces in greeting or farewell. There are disinfectant sprays at entrances and exits.

PRECAUTIONS

“It is painful to talk to people who are suffering but not to be able to reach out to them,” Katanty says. “It hurts to see people suffering and to have to keep a distance.”

Health workers and families face greater risks than the reporters. The first sign of Ebola is often a fever, so they take temperature twice a day.

They repeatedly practice getting in and out of full-body protective gear. That is not needed today as the clinic is designed to accommodate visitors; patients are kept apart in transparent-sided cubicles.

It is not possible to access the cubicles. At one point, Ratner puts his camera in a case used by underwater divers and a member of staff takes it in during her rounds. That allow Ratner to take photos reaching in through an access point with rubber-gloved hands to operate the camera from outside.

The team seeks permission from patients and guardians before taking footage.

At the end of the day with interviews done, Katanty wipes down his tripod and the rest of his gear, removes the foam covering from his camera’s microphone, soaks it in chlorine solution and leaves it to dry in the tropical sun.