Rutshuru, North Kivu Province, February 2020. Neighbors and Red Cross burial workers dressed in protective clothing gather outside a family home in Rutshuru, where an 11-month-old girl died during the Ebola outbreak. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac

From epidemic to pandemic

Rutshuru, North Kivu, 28 April 2020
Reading time: 4 min

In February, as I followed a local Red Cross team preparing an infant’s burial in the eastern Congolese town of Rutshuru, I thought I was documenting the final days of the second-worst Ebola epidemic in history. I never imagined that an even deadlier health crisis loomed, on the verge of consuming not only Congo but also the rest of the world.

Images of health workers wearing masks, goggles, and full-body protective gear used to be associated only with Ebola outbreaks and Hollywood films. Such images now emerge daily from around the globe, as we struggle to adapt to a new reality imposed by the novel coronavirus.

Instead of marking the final weeks of an Ebola epidemic that has killed more than 2,200 people over the past 20 months, the little girl’s funeral fell during the early days of a global pandemic—one that has already killed at least 200,000 people in a matter of weeks, with no end in sight. The international media has focused on how the wealthiest nations are struggling to cope. Less attention has been paid to the health and economic impact on poorer nations.

Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province, February 2020 [1] Neighbours and Red Cross workers in protective clothing prepare to bury an 11-month-old girl who died during Congo’s Ebola outbreak. © Finbarr O’Reilly pour la Fondation Carmignac
Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province, February 2020. Neighbours and Red Cross workers in protective clothing prepare to bury an 11-month-old girl who died during Congo’s Ebola outbreak. © Finbarr O’Reilly pour la Fondation Carmignac
Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province, February 2020, A Red Cross burial worker shows a man how to put on protective gloves © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province, February 2020, A Red Cross burial worker shows a man how to put on protective gloves © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province, February 2020, Red Cross burial workers carry the body of the 11-month old girl © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province, February 2020, Red Cross burial workers carry the body of the 11-month old girl © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac

With borders closed and travel on hold, we have a unique opportunity to draw upon and amplify the essential work of Congolese photographers and visual journalists. Their process of documentation reveals how the Congolese are coping with the human, social, and ecological challenges in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that connects us all.

From the outset of my Carmignac project, I was looking for ways to collaborate with Congolese colleagues. I wanted to shape a hopeful narrative around how the country is gradually emerging from generations of exploitation, conflict, and misrule. For too long, outsiders have dominated the storytelling coming out of Africa, often using a distorted lens that echoes the colonial mentality and reflects inherent structural and racial biases.

That dynamic has thankfully been shifting: more and more African journalists are finding ways to share their own stories, ideas and perspectives. Now, for the first time in its 11-year history, the Carmignac Award will showcase a collaborative reportage from a diverse team of local journalists.

I’m excited to begin publishing the work of my fellow contributors here; tomorrow, we will start with a selection of images by Justin Makangara in Kinshasa

Rutshuru, North Kivu Province, February 2020. Red Cross burial workers and mourners attend the funeral of an 11-month-old girl, who died during the Ebola outbreak. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Rutshuru, North Kivu Province, February 2020. Red Cross burial workers and mourners attend the funeral of an 11-month-old girl, who died during the Ebola outbreak. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac

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