What does it take to be a hero?

تم النشر: 15 فبراير 2016 20:59 CET

By Tadateru Konoé, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

What exactly is a “hero”? It seems to me that we are sometimes too generous with this term. We call our sportsmen and women heroes, we elevate our political leaders, and in the process, we strip this word of its true meaning.It is quite possible that we have all come across one or two heroes in our lives. However, the heroes I know number in the thousands. They have names like Daniel, Gerald, Mariatu, and Edwina. And, for the past 22 months, they have all donned Red Cross vests, helping to bring the deadliest Ebola outbreak the world has ever experienced, to its knees.

The dangers these women and men have faced cannot be overstated. They have literally risked their lives to stop the spread of this highly contagious and deadly disease. They have also faced tremendous discrimination. Time after time, these frontline volunteers had rocks and other projectiles thrown at them; they were verbally abused and threatened with death; they were forced to leave their homes and communities; their money was not accepted at market.

Nevertheless, thousands of these Red Cross volunteers put up their hands to fight Ebola. Through their unwavering commitment to their country and communities, hundreds signed up to provide safe and dignified burials for those suspected or confirmed of having succumbed to the disease. This work was critical in breaking chains of transmission. The bodies of Ebola victims are incredibly contagious, and, in communities where burial rituals are important and intimate, these traditions were major factors in the aggressive spread of the disease. Armed with the protective tools to do the job safely, our volunteers were still, not surprisingly, unprepared for what they would experience. They talk of freezing when the body of one victim exhaled a cloud of putrid air upon being moved from his bed. They admit being on the verge of leaving the body and running out. Who could blame them if they had?

But they did not. They stayed and, almost two years later, have performed more than 57,000 burials across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Safe and dignified burials have been an essential pillar of the Red Cross and Red Crescent response to the Ebola outbreak. But treatment, contact tracing, social mobilization, and psychosocial support have also been crucial to ensuring Ebola was crippled. Without this five-pronged approach, it is doubtful whether the outbreak would be ending.

As it does wind down and other actors pack up their offices and equipment, Red Cross volunteers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will remain. It is our duty to ensure that these heroes receive the respect, recognition and protection for their outstanding contribution to the fight against Ebola. We must provide them with the support they so deserve as they too strive to rebuild their lives, and overcome the trauma they have experienced and the stigma they have faced.

Together with UNDP, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched a 6.3 million Swiss francs project, in partnership with the National Red Cross Societies of Guinea and Sierra Leone, to assist at least 1,200 frontline Red Cross responders with their transition back into ‘normal’ life. The joint project aims to train these brave men and women for a different vocation or help facilitate their return to education.

A similar project is also being rolled out in Liberia. By analyzing the skills gaps in the existing labour markets, these Red Cross frontline responders will be able to establish a successful career after leaving the Ebola operation, or return to education with the help of scholarships.

It is equally important to recognize that it may be mentally and emotionally difficult for our volunteers to return to their communities. So, while these initiatives will address challenges of employment and education, we will also provide psychosocial support for those who need it.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is the largest humanitarian organization in the world, with up to 17 million active volunteers. Day in and day out, they go quietly about their business, not seeking fame, attention or wealth. They do so simply because they want to ease the suffering of their brothers and sisters. And now that Ebola is nearing its end, these skilled men and women should be primary actors in helping to make their communities, and their countries, more resilient when faced with future epidemics. As trusted members of their communities, we must ensure that they are integrated into community health systems as they begin to recover.

During the largest Ebola outbreak ever witnessed, more than 10,000 Red Cross volunteers, both long-term volunteers and new ones, demonstrated extreme courage. When others fled, they stayed. Some of them lost their lives, and we mourn them deeply. By any definition, these men and women are heroes. They deserve our support.