Updated on May 25 at 3:12 p.m. ET
Three people who had been infected with Ebola recently left an isolation ward at Wangata Hospital against medical advice, according to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Ministry of Health. The hospital lies in Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million, where health workers are trying to contain the Congo’s ninth Ebola outbreak. One patient was on the mend, but decided to leave on Sunday and didn’t come back. Two more left with their families on Monday and went to church. One died at home, before his body was returned to the hospital for safe burial. The other returned voluntarily, before passing away at the hospital.
Choices like these make it harder to control this outbreak, which had already spread to 58 possible cases, as of Wednesday evening. But they are also understandable.
On a recent trip to the Congo, I met several survivors of past Ebola outbreaks, several of whom had left hospitals and gone home. Partly, that’s because an isolation ward can be a horrendous place, with walls and floors sometimes covered with vomit, feces, and urine. But partly, it’s also because the very concept of an isolation ward is an anathema to many Congolese people.
In the Congo, if you’re sick, you’re usually surrounded. Medical services are thin, so family members shoulder the burden of nursing their loved ones back to health. At one hospital I visited (well before the current outbreak), a family had camped outside a treatment building, waiting for their relatives inside to recuperate. Their laundry was drying on a washing line. “In an outbreak, you want to separate sick and healthy people, but here, if people are sick, everyone’s there,” one survivor told me. “Here, for we who live in communities, it is solitude that kills us.”