Your Cell Phone Is Spreading Ebola

A deadly outbreak in Congo has become a global emergency because of a raging conflict over valuable minerals.

A miner stands on a mound of dirt at an abandoned industrial mine March 28, 2006 in Mongbwalu, Congo. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A miner stands on a mound of dirt at an abandoned industrial mine March 28, 2006 in Mongbwalu, Congo. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Last week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), declined to declare the ongoing outbreak of Ebola a global emergency. His decision came on the advice of an expert scientific panel; it was dubious nevertheless. Whatever the world chooses to call it, the disease is now on the edge of catastrophe that requires an urgent response.

The most urgent of all is also among the least direct. It doesn’t involve Ebola at all but rather the inside of our cell phones.

As of April 13, the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has sickened 1,251 people, killing 803, or 64 percent, of the infected. (This is well past the threshold of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which was formally declared a global health emergency by WHO on Aug. 8, 2014.) Despite the fact that nearly 100,000 people have been immunized with a vaccine that is 97.5 percent effective, infections are soaring, spread over a wide geography that is constantly catching international epidemic control experts by surprise. Many of the Ebola dead never sought care, remaining unknown to authorities until their demise and dying in their homes surrounded by virally exposed friends and family, risking further expansion of the epidemic.

This is occurring in an atmosphere of anger, warfare, distrust, and violence that increasingly targets the international health care response. North Kivu, the main area of infection, has been a war zone since 1994, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hutus fled there from Rwanda, fearing reprisal attacks from Tutsis after 75 percent of the Tutsi population was slaughtered in a mass genocide. The Rwandan army swept into the region in 1996, spawning a massive war involving multiple African nations that eventually claimed more than 6 million lives. Though that war officially ended in 2003, fighting never stopped in North Kivu and today involves an estimated 120 groups that range from sophisticated, well-armed armies to ragtag bands of self-proclaimed “liberators” that operate as criminal gangs (for which the international health care responders’ foreign funds are a lucrative target).

Although Americans have played a minor role in this epidemic, because the U.S. State Department forbids federal employees from venturing into the dangerous North Kivu area, the global response has been aggressive and smart. Past mistakes in epidemic responses have largely been corrected, WHO has executed bold leadership, there is an effective vaccine, and despite the constant threat of violence, hundreds of health responders from all over the world are on the scene. Yet the epidemic continues to expand, and in late-night conversations with WHO’s Tedros, I have asked why he is reluctant to declare a global emergency. The audibly exhausted director-general quizzed back, “What is to be gained by doing so?”

He has a point. Other than perhaps loosening U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s restrictions limiting scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from joining the response, and putting an enormous guilt trip on the World Bank to offer a few million dollars, it’s hard to identify what a heightened state of urgency might offer. Any enhancement in military presence—increasing the numbers of United Nations peacekeepers over the roughly 20,000 now in North Kivu or expanding the size of the Congolese national army presence—would invite counteraction from rebel forces, likely escalating warfare. Moreover, many local citizens are already convinced that the entire Ebola crisis was concocted by corrupt officials in Congo’s faraway capital, Kinshasa, for a variety of nefarious purposes; a military escalation would only appear to validate their conspiracy theories.

One set of actions, however, can and should be taken immediately by the Trump administration, the U.N. Security Council, the G-20, and international trade offices in countries with significant mobile phone and laptop production and manufacturing facilities. It concerns the vast mineral riches in the soils of North Kivu, sales of which finance weapons purchases for all of the rival forces in the region and constitute a key incentive behind the ongoing violence.

Conflict seems to have deepened in North Kivu alongside the spectacular global growth in the mobile phones market, which has made the locally plentiful black stones of columbite-tantalite, or coltan, potentially more valuable than Congo’s gold, diamonds, uranium, and other minerals and gems. (The mineral trade brings as much as $1.4 billion per year.) Coltan is a heat-resistant mix of compounds that conduct high-energy signals inside laptops, electric cars, and cell phones, allowing compressed signals to display videos and games without exploding and batteries to safely store energy. Médecins Sans Frontières and other NGOs doing humanitarian work in the region noted a clear increase in regional violence in 2018, and rape. This is possibly linked to higher coltan demand.

Coltan is labeled a “conflict mineral,” which, like “blood diamonds,” is meant to be shunned. Nine years ago, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1952, calling for an end to the trade in conflict minerals and stipulating that “all States, particularly those in the region, regularly publish full import and export statistics for natural resources including gold, cassiterite, coltan, wolframite, timber, and charcoal and enhance information sharing and joint action at the regional level to investigate and combat regional criminal networks and armed groups involved in the illegal exploitation of natural resources.”

Numerous other coltan-related resolutions from the U.N. have followed since the 2010 conflict mineral declaration. Countries across Africa, as well as the European Union and Chinese government, have subsequently vowed to ban the purchase and use of Congolese coltan. In 2016, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued strict guidelines for the mining and purchasing of coltan from conflicted-affected areas.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act, aimed at regulating the financial industry against future market failures. Included in that, Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act specifically requires U.S. computer and technology companies to trace the origins of their supplies of essential minerals, guaranteeing that none were mined from North Kivu. Under the act, companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Tesla, Dell, and their entire global supply chain of subcomponent manufacturers are required to demonstrate due diligence in ensuring that they know the origins of the minerals used in manufacturing their products and can prove none were derived from the Congolese conflict zone. In 2015, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals, and Chemicals Importers and Exporters adopted similar language, aimed at assuring their tech manufacturing sector shuns conflict minerals.

Yet scrutiny of corporate practices in purchasing coltan and other conflict minerals reveals low levels of genuine compliance. Given that about 80 percent of the global supply of coltan lies in North Kivu soils, it is hard to understand how the electronics industry could continue its worldwide expansion without buying conflict minerals, though perhaps through a series of untraceable shell companies located outside of Congo.

In 2017, the Trump administration vowed to eliminate Section 1502, using executive powers, and in April of that year the Securities and Exchange Commission ceased enforcing it. Manufacturers claimed that full implementation of the due-diligence tracking of mineral supplies, and the need to make purchases outside of the Congolese war zone, could cost $4 billion. Some researchers found that implementation of Section 1502 actually increased lawlessness and violence in the mining sector in North Kivu, bankrupting established businesses and promoting slavelike conditions in the mines. In June 2017, the Republican-led House voted to repeal Section 1502.

Where does this leave us? Coltan, gold, diamonds, and other minerals may not be the only sources of funding for the rival militias and armies of North Kivu, but they are certainly significant components of financing. The Trump administration, G-20, and OECD should immediately scrutinize the conflict minerals trade and the many government attempts to limit their use in cell phones and other electronics. Japan, as the host of the upcoming G-20 Summit, should place trade in coltan and its impact on the Ebola epidemic on the June gathering’s Osaka agenda.

Unless the flow of cash-for-coltan comes to a halt, our cell phones will indirectly fuel violence and spur further spread of Ebola. It’s hard to believe that anybody would think watching videos on a smartphone was a reasonable trade-off for an assassinated health care worker or spread of the Ebola virus to another Congolese town.

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett

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