Pastor Jonathan uses his experience tackling Ebola to fight COVID-19 in the DRC
“My childhood was not easy. I lost my father when I was two-years-old. My mother wasn’t around so I became an orphan. Living without parents is like hell on earth,” says Pastor Jonathan Apua, now in his late 40s. “Nothing was easy without my parents. What I lived through in my childhood, I never want to see another child go through it. This is what inspires my work.”
Pastor Jonathan has spent his life in Goma, a city in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Over the last 40 years, the region has been gripped by 11 distinct Ebola outbreaks, marking the second largest ever outbreak outside West Africa in 2018. Ebola disproportionately affected children in the region with 30 per cent of the cases in kids. In 2020, UNICEF reported that around 1,000 children were suffering from Ebola, about 7,000 kids were separated from their families, and more than 2,500 others lost their parents to the deadly disease, known for killing two-thirds of those who contract it.
Despite Ebola’s toll, many people didn’t believe the disease was real and suspected ambulances and vaccines or other injections caused Ebola in the DRC. Similarly, people are doubting COVID-19 in his community as well. As a local leader - a long-time pastor in a church and a prominent elder - Pastor Jonathan believed he had a role to play in educating his community about Ebola and how to prevent it.
Above all, it’s his own challenging childhood as an orphan that inspires him to help prevent disease outbreaks, from Ebola to COVID-19, in his community: to spare children from becoming orphans. “It’s so painful to watch a child suffer. I need to save lives. I need to get ahead of this,” the pastor said to himself years ago. And so, he did.
Before Ebola even reached his city, Pastor Jonathan had already participated in World Vision’s workshops on Ebola prevention and management at the community-level. “Above all, I learned how to communicate. Communicating is not superficial. Real communication is talking about things in a clear, accurate, and precise manner.”
World Vision helped the charismatic pastor refine his communication skills, and learn how to detect the diseases, and prevent it through communication and education. “The first case we identified [in our community] was thanks to the training from World Vision. We saved our province on the basis of that same knowledge.”
By the end of 2020, the Ebola outbreak was over and fewer than 10 cases have been recorded so far this year. Pastor Jonathan is using his experience educating his community about Ebola to tackle COVID-19, an encroaching threat in the eastern DRC.
“I’m a pastor, but I’m also a humanitarian. I live with and in my community. I want to see my community safe from all these diseases. My motivation is my strength.”
Disbelief and misconceptions were the biggest challenges he faced during his fight against Ebola. People were dying due to a lack of knowledge, he says. “People either didn’t know [about Ebola] or they were misled by a myth around them that said such diseases are spiritual,” the pastor explains. Many also believed that ambulances and vaccines infected people with Ebola.
“World Vision taught me how to understand different pandemics and viruses. As part of [World Vision’s] Channels of Hope programme, I was able to share my knowledge with others and speak confidently about these viruses. I saved lives.”
Pastor Jonathan continues to work with this programme, which is increasingly focused on COVID-19 prevention, and applying the valuable experience of fighting Ebola to this new invisible enemy.
“I teach people how to avoid [COVID-19] and prevent its transmission. How? By washing your hands. I explain to them that this virus is real and urge them to respect physical distancing,” he explains. “People are understanding that they had the wrong information [about Ebola]. They lacked information.”
The pastor is eager to avoid such roadblocks to COVID-19 prevention. He knows that speaking to people early and often is key to disease management. He goes door-to-door, practising physical distancing, to inform his community members about the threat of COVID-19, its symptoms, and how to prevent the disease. He wants his community to remember how unbelievable Ebola felt until it was too late with too many lives already lost – too many orphans.
“This work has also helped me learn to listen. Yes, truly listening to others allowed me to understand their pain… to comfort them,” Pastor Jonathan says. “But it also allowed me to pay it forward: I’ve taught my fellow pastors [about disease prevention] and asked them to follow my lead.”
Faith leaders play a critical role in their communities, even more so in times of crisis. World Vision International is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in more than 70 countries worldwide, and has partnered with more than 124,000 faith leaders worldwide, including Pastor Jonathan, to ensure communities have fact-based health information.