Protests as Congo leader warns of Ebola election ‘disaster’

KINSHASA, Congo — Congo’s leader is blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak for the last-minute decision to bar an estimated 1 million voters from Sunday’s long-delayed presidential election, claiming it would be a “disaster” if someone infects hundreds of people. Protests exploded again on Friday in response as health workers suspended efforts and warned that new cases could sharply rise.

In an interview with The Associated Press, President Joseph Kabila contradicted his own health officials and experts with the World Health Organization who have said precautions were taken in collaboration with electoral authorities so people could vote. Those include tons of hand sanitizer — Ebola is spread via infected bodily fluids — and the screening of all voters entering polling stations.

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Without mentioning the election, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned late Friday that “prolonged insecurity” in Congo could erase recent gains made in containing the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. Work has reached a “critical point,” he said.

Kabila on Thursday evening claimed that the hemorrhagic fever could spread as people use voting machines, tapping on a touchscreen to select candidates. A polling station could have 500 to 600 voters and “this assumes that a lot of people will be contaminated,” he said. Health officials have said people would sanitize their hands before and after voting.

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Until this week, the Ebola outbreak declared on Aug. 1 had been a challenge but not a barrier to the election. Voting is now delayed in the cities of Beni and Butembo — but not in other communities with Ebola cases — until March, long after the inauguration of Kabila’s successor in January. Residents had largely supported Kabila in past elections but sentiment has turned in recent years amid persistent insecurity.

This latest delay in an election meant to occur in late 2016 has angered both residents and the opposition, which accuses the government of trying to ensure that Kabila’s preferred successor wins. Many Congolese believe Kabila will wield power behind the scenes and protect his assets in a country with vast mineral wealth.

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