From Yorkshire village life to the Congo, grandmother will spend Christmas abroad in fight against Ebola

Cokie at her home in Whixley.
Cokie at her home in Whixley.

Harrogate humanitarian worker ‘Cokie’ will spend Christmas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where an Ebola outbreak is claiming lives. Laura Drysdale reports.

For the past 17 years, Agnes Van Der Velde has dedicated her life to offering humanitarian aid across the globe. She has been away from home and her family for many a Christmas and 2018 will be no exception.

Cokie has spent years of her life dedicated to humanitarian causes including the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak.

Cokie has spent years of her life dedicated to humanitarian causes including the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak.

Later this month the grandmother, known as ‘Cokie’, will fly to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where she will help to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

On August 1, the Ministry of Health of the DRC declared a new outbreak of the disease in the North Kivu Province in the north-east of the African country. Four months in, the latest figures from the World Health Organisation published this week indicate that there have been more than 300 cases and at least 170 lives claimed. A total of 28 health workers are among those to have been infected.

“Unfortunately, it is a difficult situation,” says Cokie. She has only recently returned from Mbandaka, in north west DRC, where she helped to provide training and materials to improve hygiene. “The number of cases are continuing to rise partly because of the insecurity caused by the armed groups in the area [North Kivu] - there are over 50. There were 33 violent civilian deaths in October alone.”

Her upcoming mission will see her working in health facilities to strengthen infection prevention and control, improve the identification of Ebola and referrals of suspected cases, and support safe burials.

“I have to admit the insecurity does add to the already present concerns which accompany going to work in an Ebola outbreak. The worst aspect is that activities have to stop from time to time due to the insecurity which gives the infection a chance to spread.”

At the end of October, the United Nations Security Council voiced deep concern over the conflict situation in DRC. It condemned attacks by armed groups and demanded full, safe, immediate and unhindered access for humanitarian and medical personnel and their equipment, transport and supplies to areas affected by the Ebola outbreak, so they could work to save lives and prevent the virus from spreading

“I think I am wary with what I do because we are working in areas where people have a different way of life,” says Cokie, who lives in Whixley near Harrogate.

Her upcoming mission is with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an emergency humanitarian charity which helps people displaced by conflict, disease and natural disaster, but for many years she has also worked with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), who provide medical aid in conflict zones, natural disasters and epidemics.

It was with that organisation, known in English as Doctors Without Borders, that Cokie became involved in the response to the 2015-15 Ebola epidemic, the largest known outbreak of the virus in history.

According tot the NHS, around 28,000 cases and more than 11,000 deaths were reported by the World Health Organisation, mainly affecting the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Families were torn apart, children orphaned and communities devastated.

Cokie’s work took her first to Guinea and then Liberia. “When an Ebola emergency begins, it always seems to be very fatal to start with. It was heartbreaking seeing all these people come in, including children, knowing that they wouldn’t come out alive.”

Her roles included collecting bodies from the community and infection control and staff training at treatment centres. “It seemed like it was never going to stop. I just thought, when is this going to end?’ I was going out into the community finding dead bodies and taking them away and would go back to the same house again weeks later to then pick up people who had been looking after them and now had the virus themselves.”

In caring for infected people, health workers were among those at risk of contracting the disease, the symptoms of which include a high temperature, headache, joint and muscle pain diarrhoea, vomiting, a rash and reduced kidney and liver function.

“Being around dead bodies a lot, I was very aware of my mortality,” says 58-year-old Cokie. Though workers were clued-up about the virus, how it spreads and how best to take care of themselves, it didn’t stop them constantly taking their temperatures to check they were not feverish. “When I came home in between Ebola missions (in 2014 and 2015), some people were paranoid about visiting me.”

In 2015, Cokie was presented with a Woman of the Year award for her work on the frontline of the crisis. But her humanitarian efforts over the past near-two decades span much wider.

From an early age Cokie, who has travelled extensively, has felt strongly about the inequalities in the world, deeply saddened by many people not having access to basic needs including healthcare, clean water, food and shelter.

“I think when you go travelling you see the world and the way people live in it. I have always been interested in different cultures and different ways people live, but when you see the poverty that people live in, you think ‘I want to do something to help them’.”

Since the age of 42, she has done just that. “So long as I feel I am able to do it and contribute, then i will continue. I feel privileged,” she says.

After graduating from a degree in biology in the early 1980s, Cokie became a full-time mother to her son Sam Paxton, now 37, whilst running several small businesses.

A year as a science teacher at Foxwood School in Seacroft, Leeds, followed and she then became an outdoor pursuits officer with Harrogate Borough Council. For several years, she ran her own company in management consultancy before selling it in 2000 to indulge in her passions for rock climbing and travel.

“I then applied to all sorts of organisations to se if I could do what I have always wanted to do all my life which is helping people abroad, providing assistance.” Her first mission with MSF was in 2002, a logistician at the time, though she is now a water and sanitation expert.

“If you don’t provide waste management services, hand washing facilities and clean water, people will die whether you provide hospitals or not, but if you provide these things, you can then provide medical help,” she says.

Cokie’s missions with MSF and later IRC have taken her across the globe including to Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake and to refugee camps in South Sudan, Bangladesh and Greece. Her time is now split between village life in Yorkshire, seeing her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, who are planning an early Christmas celebration ahead of her travel to DRC, and missions abroad.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have managed to stumble into this work,” she says. “I couldn’t think of a better way of spending the past twenty years of my life.”