What do you do on a day to day basis in the battle against the coronavirus?
The situation in the field guides my daily tasks. In the early days of the outbreak, I was coordinating and actively participating in the enrollment of clinics and hospitals to the Public Health Laboratory (PHL)'s eOrder system to facilitate the transmission of their specimens. Another aspect of my daily duties relates to problem resolution, which is a liaison role between hospitals and the laboratory to ensure that issues with problem specimens are resolved to minimize the impact on turnaround time. I also trained some of the staff that were hired to support the agency's efforts.
What are some of the key challenges that you face in carrying out your duties?
Because this is an unprecedented situation, there is no real guideline in dealing with this outbreak. For most of us working, I believe that is the source of most of our daily challenges.
How do you cope with the stress and emotional challenges of being on the front lines in this battle against COVID-19?
First, I am grateful to support the nurses and doctors treating patients by easing the testing process of their specimens. The Department of Health provides a lot of wellness and mental health support resources to the staff at PHL. Finally, I have a great network of friends and family that have been very supportive.
You just finished working on the Ebola task force in 2019 with doctors, activists, and policymakers. How does the coronavirus outbreak compare to what you witnessed with the 2019 Ebola outbreak in the Congo?
There are many lessons to be learned from the Ebola outbreak, especially for the Congolese government. Yet, it is hard for me to compare it to the current pandemic. Although insecurity in the region made the response challenging, most of the procedures applied during the Ebola outbreak were based on lessons learned from previous outbreaks. In the case of the novel-coronavirus, the modus operandi is not well known. Further, health systems are being challenged like never before, revealing how much more we need to do in terms of global surveillance and emergency preparedness.
You visited health clinics and centers in the Congo in January, how prepared do you think the Congo is to address an outbreak of COVID-19?
It is not a secret that the DRC has an ailing health system suffering from decades of negligence. The country lacks the medical equipment to respond to the outbreak appropriately; we are talking about respirators, oxygen pumps, test kits, consumables, and personal protective equipment. The good news is that they have the structure and the lessons from the recent Ebola outbreak to work with, along with some skilled health workers dedicated to their work.
You recently shared your experiences and offered advice to Congolese youth who have taken the initiative to educate the residents of Kinshasa about the challenges and best practices to combat coronavirus. Does being engaged in the battle in New York give you particular insights that you can pass on to your comrades in the Congo?
First, I want to say that I am inspired and encouraged by the youth who are fighting to take control of the country's narrative. Although my involvement in New York is more technical, I have access to resources beneficial to their initiative. Unfortunately, the social conditions in Congo make it very difficult to apply the recommended preventive measures to combat this outbreak. Beyond the actions taken by youth organizations in the capital, the government needs to provide its citizens with the resources to apply the preventive measures effectively.
Anything that we haven't asked about your experience in New York and the Congo that you would like to share with our readers?
I want to stress the fact that these are unprecedented times. In Congo, like in New York, it is important not to let fear and panic get the best of us. It is important to remain connected to reliable sources of information because there is a lot of misinformation circulating on coronavirus. Finally, we are fighting this pandemic together.
Bibi Ndala is a graduate of the Masters of Public Health program at New York University with a concentration in Global Public Health. She currently works as a City Research Scientist at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Public Health Laboratory. She has ten years of experience as a medical technologist at McGill University Health Center. She recently launched the organization ELAKA to support and educate expecting mothers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bibi also serves as volunteer coordinator for Friends of the Congo and Congo Love.