Ebola: with so much at stake, somebody has to manage the dead

Publicado: 18 julio 2014 12:34 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

Katherine Mueller is the communications manager in Africa for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She has been deployed to Sierra Leone to support the Red Cross response to the Ebola virus disease outbreak.

I am not sure where to start today. So many conflicting emotions, at the heart of which is sadness that so many people are dying from an invisible but very deadly Ebola virus. I witnessed four burials today of people who had fallen victim to this epidemic. They were all young: two 11-year-olds, one young man who was 18, another 21. All laid to rest in a cemetery, newly dug for Ebola victims.

No families or loved ones around. No religious leaders. For now, no markers to identify who lies where. Lowered into their final resting place by a team of volunteers dressed in gear that makes them look like they are appearing in a sci-fi flick.

The team has now buried 23 people here in Kailahun town in eastern Sierra Leone. Other bodies remain at the morgue, waiting their turn. The young men who currently perform these duties for the Ministry of Health (MoH) are now training volunteers with the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society on how to transfer and bury bodies, keeping themselves well protected in the process.

The government has asked the Red Cross to take over the management of dead bodies, and the current MoH team will soon also become Red Cross volunteers.

There is really no need for the volunteers to be all decked out in the haz-mat gear. When the team receives a body from the treatment centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières, it is already in a double body bag and has been well disinfected. The volunteers tell me they still want to wear all the equipment, even though it is stifling in this high humidity, not because they are concerned about contracting the Ebola virus, but because they are worried about how their friends and communities will react.

Fear and stigma are very real here. A colleague from the World Health Organization tells me ‘fear causes stigma’ and he’s correct.

Many people still don’t really know what Ebola is.

Some are trusting the teams of Red Cross volunteers who are going into the communities to try and raise awareness about this indiscriminate disease and how people can protect themselves. But many still don’t believe it is real. They need tangible proof. Unfortunately, that proof usually comes in the form of death. If a person does not get to a treatment centre at the first sign of symptoms, there is a 90 per cent chance they will not survive.  

As a result of the community’s general lack of knowledge of Ebola, people who are in any way connected to the virus are often ostracized by their communities, and even their loved ones. People don’t want to have anything to do with them anymore. It becomes more understandable why body management teams don’t want to be identified.

Today, these Red Cross teams watched the experienced MoH team conduct burials. On the way back, we stopped at another new cemetery, which, with 17 graves, is now full with Ebola victims. I asked the team how it makes them feel, knowing that just a couple of weeks ago, these people were functioning members of their community. One said it makes him sad, another felt uncomfortable, while yet another said it makes him think of his own mortality; that it could be any one of them lying there.

I followed up with a question about whether they are still interested in becoming part of the dead body management team, given all they had experienced today. Without hesitation, the answer was "yes".

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La Federación Internacional de Sociedades de la Cruz Roja y de la Media Luna Roja es la mayor organización humanitaria del mundo, con 190 sociedades miembros. Siendo uno de los componentes del Movimiento Internacional de la Cruz Roja y de la Media Luna Roja, nuestra labor se rige por los siete principios fundamentales: humanidad, imparcialidad, neutralidad, independencia, voluntariado, unidad y universalidad.